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Converse County Commissioners frustrated with requirement to complete the Box Elder Road expansion

Jackson Day with the Douglas Budget, via the Wyoming News Exchange

DOUGLAS — The Converse County commissioners on Feb. 20 purchased $30,000 of Sweetwater River Conservancy Conservation Bank “credits” in order to complete the Box Elder Road expansion project. They are none too happy about it, though, citing bureaucratic red tape that requires the purchase even though no greater sage-grouse have been in the breeding ground, or lek, for years. 
Nevertheless, without the $30,000 in credits, the road project would grind to a halt this summer. 
These credits will allow the road work to continue despite portions of the project being near a known breeding ground of the greater sage-grouse, a bird native to Wyoming that’s hovering on the edge of being endangered. 
In July 2019, Gov. Mark Gordon passed an executive order designed to protect the greater sage-grouse. The order mandates corporations and government entities that work on or near leks during certain times of the year to purchase bank credits, with the money going back to sage-grouse habitat protection. 
Since October of last year, construction workers have been expanding and repairing Box Elder Road. While no part of the construction itself requires the purchase of the credits, an equipment staging area is within two miles of a lek, which means the county must purchase the credits if construction is to continue through the summer. 
“The stipulation is no activity April 1 through the end of June,” Converse County Commissioner Rick Grant explained. “It’s a time stipulation where nothing can happen within a certain distance of an occupied lek . . . Because we are inside that buffer zone, we’re qualified, or we’re required, to buy 10 credits.” 
Grant has been working with other agencies to develop systems to protect the sage-grouse since he was first elected to the commission in 2012. In that time, however, he said he believes the system needs improvements because it's too restrictive. 
“I’m frustrated,” he  said. “It’s been an uphill battle to make it so everyone has a seat at the table. When we finally got a plan put in place, we were dealing with the (Bureau of Land Management) who doesn’t like the Forest Service, and we’re back at the table arguing the same points. In the meantime, (former Gov. Matt) Mead implemented the first executive order, then we still couldn’t work through the process and get things changed, so Gov. Gordon had to sign another executive order.”
Grant said bureaucracy is the primary root of his frustration. 
As an example, he explained that there haven’t been birds seen or recorded in the area for at least five years, yet they are still required to buy credits because the law doesn’t consider a lek inactive until no birds have been seen or recorded for 10 years. 
“This was all set up with the governor in accordance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, who says, ‘If you are going to work within that buffer zone’ and ‘even if there are no birds’ – and lots of ‘if’s’ go into it – ‘we’re going to charge you some credit,’” Grant said. “It’s all the bureaucracy, a lot of which is dictated out of Washington. Nobody’s had boots on the ground to see exactly what’s taking place and what we’re doing. And, when a decision is made or a recommendation is made, that becomes what we’re going to do regardless of what those on the ground have been working and striving for.” 
Additionally, Grant questioned the necessity for such overreaching laws protecting the sage-grouse while some parts of the state have a sage-grouse hunting season. 
“Wyoming is one of the few states that still has a hunting season for sage-grouse . . . in parts of the state. We don’t have one (in Converse County),” he said. “Yet, we do all of this work to protect them.” 
He said the current system is still better than an alternative of letting the birds become endangered and being placed on the Endangered Species Act list. 
“(The sage-grouse population) is holding pretty steady, but should this bird ever become listed as an endangered species, it would cripple the state of Wyoming oil and gas and all that goes with it,” Grant said. “They would shut down activities completely within those core areas and non core areas that have any sage-grouse.”
This story was published on February 28, 2024. 

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