Wyoming legislators have proposed a new bill that would indefinitely extend the certification of the state’s only sage grouse game farm and also open the door for others to follow in its wake, reigniting a long-standing debate about how to best manage the bird’s declining populations.
North America’s largest grouse is chubby, long-tailed and the center of intense environmental debate. The greater sage grouse and the sagebrush steppe it calls home aren’t doing well: Populations have dropped by 80% range-wide since the mid-1960s due to habitat degradation caused primarily by energy development, wildfire and invasive plants. The bird is considered an indicator species of a healthy sagebrush ecosystem, but listing it under the Endangered Species Act would have major economic ramifications for energy production, construction development and grazing in Western states. In recent years, oil and gas industry tycoons, miners, politicians, ranchers and conservationists have collaborated to keep that from happening.
Hoping to stave off a listing, Wyoming passed legislation legalizing sage grouse game farms. No private company in the United States had ever tried to raise the birds in captivity, but supporters said the bill would help bolster sage grouse populations and prevent the bird from being listed as endangered. The original 2017 legislation had a sunset clause of 2022, giving the experiment five years to prove its viability, and certifications for the existing game farm is set to expire at the end of this year.
And so, on Feb. 18, sponsors introduced Senate File 61. It passed by a landslide. The bill made it out of the Travel, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee on Feb. 21 and soared through the Senate. After a third reading Friday, it heads to the House floor. Politicians introduced similar legislation last year to allow private companies to rear and release sage grouse in Idaho, but the bill never made it out of committee. Then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke suggested adding captive breeding to preservation efforts in 2017, and other legislative attempts to extend the trial period in Wyoming failed in 2019 and 2020.
Some state legislators say they’ll support the bill, arguing that sage grouse farms are an important conservation tool. The game farms have hit some snags, however, with high costs and an inability to find eggs hindering initial efforts. Diamond Wings Upland Game Bird was the only facility in the state to apply for, and receive, Wyoming Game and Fish approval to attempt breeding sage grouse in captivity after the 2017 legislation passed.
Then, in 2020, Diemer True, an oilman and former president of the Wyoming Senate, created the Western States Sage Grouse Recovery Foundation to raise donations for upgraded facilities and cover financial losses. It wasn’t until the spring of 2021 that Diamond Wings was able to hatch chicks from eggs gathered in the wild, a first for a U.S. commercial facility. “I believe they’re on the verge of having success,” sponsor Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Natrona, told the Casper Star-Tribune last week. “But they need a little bit more time to prove out this concept.”
Others disagree. Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, was one of the two lone votes against introducing it this session. “I’m against this type of bird farm,” Gierau wrote in an email to High Country News. “I would rather see a habitat enhancement approach” — a game plan focused on maintaining and restoring sage grouse ecosystems rather than hatching birds on farms. Tracy Stone-Manning, the director of the Bureau of Land Management, also prefers a more natural strategy. “If we would have to farm a species in order to keep it alive, that tells me we’re failing,” she said. BLM management plans for the species don’t currently include game farms.
“If we would have to farm a species in order to keep it alive, that tells me we’re failing.”
Wildlife scientists, who were against the bill five years ago, also oppose the current bill. Raising sage grouse in captivity isn’t an efficient conservation strategy, they say, and it ignores the real problem, which is habitat loss. If healthy sagebrush ecosystems exist, birds can be transplanted from one area to another without being raised on a farm. While some species on the edge of extinction might need to be raised in captivity, it makes no sense for sage grouse, said Tom Christiansen, who worked as Wyoming Game and Fish’s sage grouse program coordinator for 15 years before retiring in 2019. “We’re nowhere near the level that would benefit from a captive rearing exercise.”
Because the practice is so new, there isn’t much data on how well greater sage grouse raised in captivity can survive in the wild. But similar attempts have not been encouraging: When the Colorado Division of Wildlife reared and released another sage grouse species, the Gunnison sage grouse, none of the birds survived. Another upland game bird, the pheasant, also has low survival rates: One study found that only 4%-8% of pen-reared pheasants survived past six months.
One problem is that farm-raised birds often lack the skills to avoid predators. Christiansen expects “very low” survival rates of sage grouse if they’re ever released back into the wild. “The math doesn’t add up when you consider the number of birds you have to have in captivity to result in a few birds living on the ground,” he said.
There are also concerns about possible disease outbreaks, which could decimate farmed birds, or worse, spread into wild populations if infected birds were ever released. Captive sage grouse are susceptible to salmonella and other bacterial, fungal and viral diseases. Despite regulations designed to reduce disease transmission on private game farms, there’s no guarantee farmed birds will be disease-free, Christiansen said.
“Our commitment is to retaining wildlife the way it’s meant to be: wild.”
Other Wyomingites are worried about the conservation precedent game farms would set. “This is a blatant privatization of public native wildlife for the profit of a private company,” said Jess Johnson, government affairs director at the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. “It stands against our moral code of how we’re in relationship with the environment here in Wyoming,” said Big Wind (Northern Arapaho), a communications and organizing associate at the Indigenous Lands Alliance of Wyoming, a coalition of local tribes. “Our commitment is to retaining wildlife the way it’s meant to be: wild.”
Despite an influx of cash and an initial hatch of breeding stock this spring, farmed sage grouse are still far from returning to the sagebrush sea. It’s still not legal to release farmed birds back into the wild in Wyoming. And that’s how many scientists, and conservation groups, would like it to stay. “When it comes time (and) somebody wants to propose release, there’s going to be a whole new round of scrutiny and debate,” Christiansen said. “That’s going to open up a whole new can of worms.”