Breath of Clarity

Working Through Controversy to Promote Conservation

The rolling back of previous restrictions to the oil and gas industry allowing for more drilling in portions of the sagebrush sea reveal that a successful collaborative agreement is vulnerable to changes in leadership. Regulations such as the Endangered Species Act are far more rigid because they are based upon protocol from long-standing policies. That said, when there is a conflict in values amongst ESA stakeholders, explicit regulation determines the course of action. On the other hand, collaborative agreement relies more so on self-guided cooperation amongst stakeholders. As a result, the stakeholders in power are not held accountable by any clear protocols. Essentially, the interests of people in power must be aligned with a collaborative agreement’s goals for the project to function well.

For example, in the case of sage grouse management, the Trump administration’s allowance of more oil and gas exploration and drilling in sagebrush habitat led to a major setback in species conservation efforts which exposed a major conflict within the United States Department of Interior (DOI). In the sage grouse management case, the Conservation Objectives Team outlined clear goals for the The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Bureau of Land Management to aim for under the assumption that aligned actions would follow. Further, the U.S. Geological Survey was involved in the design stage of the project. Going forward, the USFWS took the reigns in steps 3 through 6. All three of these agencies operate under the DOI. However, a press release by the DOI conveyed energy revenues have soared during the Trump administration as the DOI disbursed $11.69 billion in 2019 from energy production on federal and American Indian-owned lands and offshore areas (DOI 2019). It equates to a $2.76 billion increase in relation to 2018, and is nearly double the disbursements of $6.23 billion allocated at the end of 2016 by the previous administration (DOI 2019). A study from the Journal of Applied Ecology assessed impacts of six anthropogenic structures- including oil and gas, fences, wind turbines, buildings, roads and power lines- on grouse survival and displacement behavior across four different time periods in a grouse life cycle- year around, lekking, nesting and brooding (Torre et al. 2014). Oil and gas structures had the greatest negative effect on displacement behavior and lek attendance was most affected (Torre et al. 2014). The significance of the lek period being the most affected is that it is before the nesting and brooding which is when reproduction takes place. Therefore, oil and gas drilling largely impacts sage grouse population dynamics. Further, the DOI disbursements partially went to states and tribes which supported their local economies. Specifically, oil and gas produced from DOI public lands and waters supported an estimated $85.4 billion in value added, $139 billion in economic output, and 607,000 jobs (DOI 2019). Not only is the Trump administration negatively impacting the species conservation efforts with its own decision-making, but it is also incentivizing states and tribes to stand behind the activity that directly deters the survival of sage grouse. That said, the DOI was severely, unproductively investing in oil and gas drilling while conducting the sage grouse conservation project.

Further, to counteract the improvement in efficiency aimed by conducting collaborative agreements, the Trump administration instead streamlined the process to attain approval for drilling. Specifically, the time needed to complete an APD under the previous administration took an average of 257 days, while it now takes 108 days to complete the processing. As a result, drilling on public lands have increased by 300 percent since 2016 (DOI 2019). Evidently, changes in the leadership structure of collaborative agreements can impact a wide variety of species in conservation projects all across the nation. For instance, the American West is home to hundreds of animals- such as elk, mule deer, prong horn and golden eagles- that define its region (DOI 2015). All the animals in the region were subject to the DOI’s actions.

At the same time, the deteriorating health of the sage grouse has sparked the largest land conservation in United States history (DOI 2015). While the sage grouse conservation effort is not perfect due to the vulnerability of collaborative management, it was successful in bringing together various levels including ranchers, scientists, fire fighters, sports men and women, non-governmental organizations and many different levels of government (DOI 2015). The Land Management Plan represents a step in the direction towards tackling climate change.


Department of Interior. 2015. “Greater Sage-grouse Conservation Announcement.” DOI. Youtube. Sept 22, 2015. Video, 3:22.

Department of Interior. 2019. “Energy Revenues and Disbursements Soar Under the Trump Administration Revenues and Disbursements Nearly Double FY 2016 Totals.” DOI Press Release, 10/24/2019. Accessed: Nov 5, 2019.

Torre J. Hovick, R. Dwayne Elmore, David K. Dahlgren, Samuel D. Fuhlendorf and David M. Engle. 2014. “Evidence of negative effects of anthropogenic structures on wildlife: a review of grouse survival and behaviour”. Journal of Applied Ecology. 51(6): 1680-1689.

Comment by Ryan Rebhan:

Piggybacking off of your piece, we now have data to show how the change in leadership and specifically President Trump’s energy dominance plan affected sage grouse numbers. According to game management reports from Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and Nevada, sage grouse numbers peaked in 2016 (Obama’s last year in office) and have since declined year over year since. Sage Grouse Conservation officer Lee Foster said that “the population [last] peaked in 2016…This is the third year of decline,” with Oregon including a 7.7% drop between 2016-2017 and a 10.2% drop between 2017-2018 and Idaho declaring that sage grouse numbers “are down 52%Links to an external site. from the peak counts in 2016″ (Thuermer, 2019). Meanwhile, drilling approvals spiked more than 6-fold in Wyoming during that same period. That, coupled with what you mentioned about how impactful drill sites are on sage grouse numbers, makes it easy to see that increased drilling in critical habitats directly negatively impacts sage grouse numbers.

Trump’s leadership and push for energy dominance had quite dire consequences on the sage grouse population and the ecosystem as a whole, but we have to frame that conversation with opponents around their economic viewpoint that increased drilling meant increased economic output, more jobs, etc. I personally argue that those “economic” gains are misleading at times and relying on boom and bust economies is a mistake that the West has made too many times before (see the history of gold mining, silver mining, fur trapping, oil, oil shell, coal, etc). Those busts leave a long legacy of angry sentiments within those communities, especially as they seek to place blame on a specific thing (even if the real issue was the over reliance on a tentative economy easily influenced by global economic shifts far outside your control). That specific “thing” to blame is often conservationists or environmentalists. If there is any sort of depression within the state, the first people blamed will be the “radical environmentalists” who were trying to save a bird rather than save Wyoming’s economy, even though the depression had little to nothing to do with commonsense sage grouse management plans.

Efforts to shift Wyoming’s economy away from an over reliance on natural resource tax revenue and towards a more modernized, diversified service based economy with increased tourism and services could greatly influence the conversation of conservation within the state.


Thuermer, Angus M. 2019. “Greater sage grouse counts show 3-year downward trend.” WyoFile. August 6, 2019.