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Sage Grouse

Male sage grouse strut in hopes of attracting a mate last April on a lek in southern Natrona County. Nearly all upcoming leases for oil and gas drilling in Wyoming overlap the protected bird's habitat.

Oil and gas activity is poised to grow substantially in Converse County, and the activity represents a boost for the state’s oil and gas companies, its service industry and its workforce.

But a proposed project reflective of the expected boom in Converse overlaps with another key resource in that region: the greater sage grouse.

A protected habitat for the western bird, the Douglas Core Area, sits within the proposed project, where 5,000 wells could be drilled over a period of 10 years. The habitat is made up of a series of breeding grounds on the eastern edge of the sage grouse’s 11-state range.

Many agree that the bird’s protections can coexist with energy development if federal and state rules are followed, but some worry about the fate of the area’s birds, where industry is already so predominant that little of the sage grouse habitat is energy-free, or at least, energy-limited.

“When we were drawing (protected boundaries), it was so hard to find anything in the Powder River Basin worth saving,” said Brian Rutledge, policy adviser for the Audubon Society and a collaborator on Wyoming’s conservation strategy for the bird. “They are really weak areas.”

Five companies have come together on the proposed oil and gas project, many of which have long been partners in Wyoming’s effort to protect the bird.

Chesapeake Energy, Anadarko Petroleum, SM Energy, EOG Resources and Devon Energy first made the proposal in 2014. If approved, it would cover about 1.5 million acres north of Douglas, of which about 21,000 acres are expected to be disturbed for the full life of the project, according to a draft environmental analysis released recently.

The draft environmental impact study is currently in a public comment period that ends March 12.

Sage grouse and energy development have long overlapped in Wyoming, at times stoking conflict between companies seeking to drill and conservation groups. The majority of companies and groups that partnered to develop state management strategies for sage grouse were eager to stave off an endangered species listing. A listing decision to keep the bird from further declines would be a significant disadvantage for Wyoming’s energy-reliant economy.

With that balance in mind, Wyoming established the core area strategy, a key effort of Gov. Matt Mead. The Wyoming approach lassos successful breeding and nesting habitat — core areas — for the highest protections in the state, leaving areas outside of the core friendlier to energy development. The strategy was largely adopted by the Bureau of Land Management and is credited with keeping the bird off the endangered species list.

A policy adviser for Mead said the governor would be submitting his comments on the draft environmental study, but spoke positively of the proposed development.

“It is encouraging to see this project move forward and the renewed interest in the Powder River Basin picking up,” said Mike Mcgrady of the governor’s office in an email. “Development within core areas is allowed and, if done within the requirements of the Core Area Strategy, should not harm the greater sage-grouse.”

Requirements for those key habitats include keeping overall disturbances, like roads and well pads, below 5 percent within a studied area, and greatly restricting the number of well pads.

“Development is certainly allowed to occur in core area,” said Amanda Withroder, a biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “But we’ll have an eye to ensure that it doesn’t exceed the thresholds.”

The draft study from the Bureau of Land Management notes some requested exceptions for sage grouse protections, namely seasonal restrictions on drilling. The agency’s recommendation for proceeding with the project would be to grant these exemptions rather than deny the companies the ability to operate year round.

Chesapeake, one of the companies proposing the project, has been involved in both restoration and reclamation work in the Douglas core habitat. Restoration has been voluntary. Reclamation, or the cleanup after operations, is mandated. The company is also a member of the state’s local sage grouse management team.

Chesapeake was not available to comment on the balance of core habitat and new development by press time.

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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