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Much has been made recently about a deal between Chesapeake Energy and the state of Wyoming to allow drilling to continue in the Douglas sage grouse core area.

Chesapeake Energy has rolled out a plan to drill a hundred more wells inside the core area, further fragmenting habitat and seeking special exceptions that allow drilling and road construction even during the height of the sensitive breeding and nesting seasons. And the state of Wyoming has apparently agreed.

The amount of habitat disturbance in this area already exceeds state limits under the governor’s core area policy by a country mile. Current estimates of disturbed habitat range from 15 to 22 percent in the core area, far beyond the

5 percent disturbance limit the governor’s plan allows. But state and federal agencies have continued to approve additional drilling permits for this area, turning a blind eye to promised sage grouse protections.

Enough is enough.

This core area has suffered damage at the hands of the oil industry. These habitats should be allowed to rest and recover, for the sake of the sage grouse that are supposed to find protected habitat here. This core area needs to be handled with kid gloves until the birds have a chance to recover from the initial bout of drilling, and during this time every single sage grouse protection promised by the state of Wyoming should be followed to the letter.

Sage grouse are already in trouble across northeastern Wyoming. Coalbed methane drilling has gobbled up prime habitat and evicted resident sage grouse, and remaining populations are hamstrung by inadequate state core area designations that have left most of the grouse population unprotected. Scientific reports indicate that if the drilling keeps up, the entire Powder River population could vanish with the next outbreak of West Nile virus. We can’t afford to lose any more of these birds.

Instead of destroying more prime habitat and evicting more sage grouse in the Powder River Basin, we should be working diligently to reverse the habitat damage already incurred.

Plenty of excuses have been bandied about to justify further drilling of grouse habitat. Proponents of drilling point to the fact that there have already been some oil and gas wells drilled in the core area. It is certainly true that these industrial incursions, some of them approved while core area protections were supposed to be enforced in violation of state standards, have had a negative impact on sage grouse.

But if a patient arrives in a hospital with a gunshot wound, the last thing the doctors should do is shoot him in the other leg.

Oil and gas interests have also pointed out that wildfire has reduced habitat value in parts of the core area. If core areas get thrown open to an industrial free-for-all every time a fire or other natural disturbance impacts part of the habitat, in time we will have no core areas with grouse.

According to the science, the protections the state’s policy put forward are far weaker than they need to be to maintain core area grouse populations. If even these insufficient protections are going to be waived upon request, sage grouse won’t have a fighting chance inside the very areas designated to ensure their survival.

Chesapeake Energy proposes to provide several million dollars for habitat improvement projects in the Douglas core area to compensate for the damage they’ll do with drilling. But if the sage grouse population goes extinct in the near term, what good is promised habitat improvement that will take decades to work?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and conservation groups like WildEarth Guardians, are watching closely to see if the state’s core area strategy is a “sufficient regulatory mechanism” that can be relied upon to maintain grouse populations as an alternative to Endangered Species Act listing.

The state of Wyoming stands at a crossroads. The governor could sign off on the Chesapeake plan. This would be a death warrant for sage grouse in the Douglas core area, and a clear signal that federal agencies cannot count on the state to live up to its core area commitments. Or the governor can put his foot down and tell Chesapeake the state will enforce its core area policy rigorously. This would establish the opposite precedent — that sage grouse protections are being taken seriously and are reliably implemented.

Choose wisely, Gov. Mead. What happens in the Douglas core area could have repercussions that reverberate across Wyoming, and the rest of the sage grouse states.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians and directs their Sagebrush Sea Campaign. He has been advocating for sage grouse conservation in Wyoming for 13 years.

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