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Sage Grouse

Sage grouse strut on an abandoned airstrip in April 2014, near the base of the Rattlesnake Range in southwest Natrona County. The Bureau of Land Management delayed selling 578 parcels of land proposed for lease because the land is also sage grouse habitat.

The quarterly oil and gas leasing bonanza that’s regularly driven millions into Wyoming’s coffers since early 2017 fizzled this December when a statewide federal auction brought in just $2,000 for the state.

Oil and gas firms bid on three parcels in the statewide fourth quarter auction, garnering $3,975. Half of that income goes to the state of Wyoming.

The unusually small sale was not a result of lagging interest from the oil and gas industry. The Bureau of Land Management was forced to delay selling 578 parcels that were proposed for lease by companies because the land is also sage grouse habitat.

Leasing is permissible in the bird’s domain and that land will be offered early next year; however, a judge recently ruled that the BLM didn’t offer the public enough time to weigh in before the December sale.

The Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming has changed its practices regarding leasing under the Trump administration. It holds statewide auctions four times per year, instead of the previous regional sales. Staff is also pressured to complete environmental analysis on each auction faster, and the public comment period was cut to 10 days. The latter change was contested successfully as one part of a broader suit in Idaho, where environmental groups are fighting the Trump administration’s leasing practices.

The federal judge decided that the BLM had broken its own rules by restricting public comment when it comes to leasing and the grouse. The BLM complied with the court decision by removing the land in sage grouse habitat from the December sale and opening a 30-day public comment period on the tracts offered. The public will also get 30 days to protest the BLM’s decisions.

The public comments on the 578 delayed parcels are being analyzed. Barring the removal of any land due to habitat concerns, those parcels will be offered for sale in February.

Leasing and drilling for oil and gas are both permitted in sage grouse general habitat, depending on existing disturbances for the bird and carrying limitations on activity that could adversely affect the bird or its habitat. Obtaining a federal land lease for drilling is a property right for companies, who then have to apply and receive approval if they choose to drill.

Improving crude prices, favorable treatment from Washington and online auctions have contributed to a surge in lease sale dollars in Wyoming over the last two years. In 2017, the combined income from federal and state sales increased by 800 percent.

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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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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