Keeping Sage Grouse Wild in Wyoming

Sage grouse are an icon of the interior western United States (and parts of Canada as well). They are obligates of Artemisia spp., i.e. sagebrush; they have very specific habitat, food, mating, and nesting needs, and all of those factors are dependent upon healthy sagebrush based ecosystems. In Wyoming, we are fortunate to have relatively robust, and often huntable, populations of sage grouse. However, science-based conservation efforts and the wellbeing of sage grouse in Wyoming are being imperiled by Senate File (SF) 61. 

What is SF 61?

SF 61 is a bill that proposes to amend the language in Wyoming Statute (W.S.) 23-5-111 (j). Title 23 details Wyoming Game and Fish related topics; Chapter 5 focuses on Game Bird Farms and Fishing Preserves. W.S. 23-5-111 (j) currently reads,

Commission rules may provide for the forfeiture to the state or for other disposition of greater sage grouse at any facility whose certification under this section has been revoked. Certifications under this section shall expire as of December 31, 2022. Commission rules shall provide for disposition of all greater sage grouse held by a license pursuant to this section as of that date. No licensee shall be entitled to reimbursement from or other claim against the state for any greater sage grouse owned by the licensee at the expiration or due to revocation of a certification and all certifications issued pursuant to this section shall so provide.

SF 61 proposes to change this to remove the expiration date, meaning sage grouse farming would continue in Wyoming in perpetuity, by removing the underlined words.

Why is it bad?

After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that the greater sage grouse warranted Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing, federal agencies including the USFWS, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released amendments to land use management plans in 2015. The goal of those 2015 amendments was to prevent ESA listing by developing ways to protect, restore, and enhance important sage grouse habitat.

None of the 98 land use plans include the use of game bird farms to raise and release captive greater sage grouse, and there’s a good reason for that: decades of scientific research shows that it just doesn’t work. Sage grouse farming requires taking eggs from wild sage grouse nest sites. Captive sage grouse are at risk for carrying infectious diseases and can spread them to wild birds upon release. The risks to already-sensitive wild sage grouse are simply too great. There’s been little to no information about the practices, successes, failures, costs, or data released to the public from those doing the bird farming. Furthermore, BHA does not support the privatization of wildlife. We oppose expending public resources on policies that support private ownership and commercialization of native wildlife species, such as sage grouse.

When the authorization to allow sage grouse farming in Wyoming passed in 2017, the Wyoming Chapter of The Wildlife Society (TWS) expressed their professional concerns, and offered recommendations based on what scientific literature indicates is best. These recommendations included: not taking eggs from nests in Core Population Areas, reducing the number of nests impacted in a year, clarifying “successfully raised” to mean the sage grouse reached sexual maturity (1 year of age), and enhanced monitoring and testing for diseases that would threaten wild birds if captive birds were released. These recommendations have not been adopted.

What can we do about it?

Glad you asked! There are several ways you can reach out to your elected officials.

Currently, SF 61 has passed its third reading in the Wyoming State Senate, with 26 Senators voting “aye” and four voting “nay.” We recommend thanking Senators Case, Gierau, Rothfuss, and Salazar for listening to the concerns their constituents expressed and voting against this bad bill. Contact information for Senators can be found here.

On Friday, February 25, the Wyoming House of Representatives received SF 61 for Introduction. Residents of Wyoming should contact their Representatives to ask them to stop this bill in its tracks—and consider contacting the Representatives from places you like to hunt or view sage grouse, too. Non-residents should make their voices heard, too: our elected officials need to know that sage grouse are important to our state’s economy and culture, and that hunters want to see management of these special birds happen through research and scientists, not the ballot box. Whether you’ve hunted these birds, hope to hunt them someday, or simply appreciate their presence on our sagebrush steppe, Wyoming’s sage grouse need us all to step up and speak out.

Not sure who to contact? The Wyoming Legislature has you covered with their Find My Legislator tool. You can toggle between “House” and “Senate” at the top of the page. Alternately, you can look at the complete list of emails and phone numbers. If you need a primer or a refresher on all things Legislature, they also have a great Citizen’s Guide to the processes involved to review. Please be sure to keep your comments succinct and polite.

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