Debate over the speckled, chubby bird endemic to Wyoming’s sagebrush landscapes has inflamed tensions between conservationists and energy developers again, as state and federal agencies consider changes to sage grouse protections.
Wyoming is home to the world’s largest sage grouse population, forcing public officials to walk a fine line between preserving the imperiled bird’s limited sagebrush habitat, and not infringing on the state’s economic backbone — mineral industries.
Controversy over the 15 million acres of sage grouse core habitat in Wyoming escalated when environmental groups released a July 25 report concluding unprecedented oil and gas leasing and permitting for drilling may accelerate the degradation of the bird’s habitat, leading to pushback from energy interests. One week later, the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to revise sage grouse habitat protections, causing conservationists to fear the worst for the bird. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s governor has been considering amendments to the state’s own sage core management strategy this summer.
The July report published by the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation considered how the uptick in oil and gas development on public land could threaten the longevity of sage grouse populations.
By examining leasing and permitting data on protected land, the study ultimately found a 54 percent increase in the rate of core sage grouse land leased to oil and gas developers between October 2015 and January 2017.
But some sage grouse experts challenged the study. Leases and permits are not an appropriate measure of actual oil and gas activity, said Bob Budd, chairman of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team and executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.
Even with the spike in approved permits, the core sage grouse areas have had minimal rig activity, according to his analysis.
“Just because you have more leases does not mean that you have more drilling,” he told the Star-Tribune in response to the study.
For its part, the report does not make a definitive connection between development and sage grouse numbers.
“The development metrics used (leases and applications for permits to drill) do not represent actual impacts to sage-grouse habitats,” the report stated.
But to Budd, a more appropriate barometer to measure activity in core sage grouse habit would be the number of spuds, or holes dug and lined before drilling commences.
Under current drilling rules, operators must file a permit application, or APD, prior to extracting minerals from leased land. But a war for permits has led some operators to lay claim to acres and acres of land, with no immediate plans to drill. Hundreds of approved acres sit untapped.
“In the last five years, 41 wells have been drilled in core (sage grouse) areas and 625 have been drilled outside core areas,” said Pete Obermueller of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. “Between 2017 and 2019, we’ve had only 6 percent of wells drilled inside core. But there’s more to it than that. We have to look at where they were spudded or drilled. In many cases, there was prior existing activity.”
Signs of decline
Amid the ongoing debate, the number of sage grouse has continued to decline.
Three states —Idaho, Nevada and Oregon — reported dips in sage grouse leks this month. Wyoming’s annual report on sage grouse is forthcoming.
To Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, the ominous report is sign enough that developers should back off.
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“If we chose to walk away from sage grouse habitat protections and just open it all up, we will see sage grouse disappear, and many, many other species,” she said. “We will be impoverished because of that. If that means corporations can’t make as much money, so be it. Sometimes we have to make choices.”
Just over a decade ago, former Gov. Dave Freudenthal introduced an executive order to “maintain high quality Greater sage-grouse habitat,” by transforming 15 million acres of land across the state into “core habitat.” Energy developers must abide by stringent requirements before drilling on the protected land.
During a Sage Grouse Implementation Team meeting in May, Gov. Mark Gordon discussed his plans to update and issue a new executive order on sage grouse that he would have “ownership” over.
“This framework is absolutely essential to the protection of the bird, and making sure that our economy moves forward,” he said.
But updates to the new order would not include a “major overhaul,” he stated in a May 14 letter to the state’s sage grouse team.
The state needs to consider the particular sensitivities of the bird, environmental groups contended in public comments submitted to the committee.
Sage grouse are “extremely sensitive to disturbance,” the Sierra Club’s Wilbert explained.
“The females gather to watch the males dance in a mating ritual. They select their partners and then they mate,” she said. “If you disrupt that sequence of events they do not nest. It has a direct impact on reproductive success.”
Wyoming is home to nearly 39 percent of sage grouse worldwide. The number of sage grouse in the state has oscillated over the years, but recent census numbers show signs of a possible decline in lek numbers, according to a member of the state’s sage grouse team.
Bad for business
Several oil and gas developers have said the extensive protections for sage grouse populations have disproportionately affected their industry for the worse.
“Oil and gas industries have borne the greatest brunt of the governor’s executive order,” said Steve Degenfelder, land manager at Kirkwood Oil & Gas LLC, an independent developer based in Casper. “All we’re wanting is a level playing field so that we can develop our resources the same as other industries.”
To Degenfelder, the state needs to consider the economic loss it swallows when oil and gas developers are deterred from developing in core areas, too.
“If the state delays or precludes development, then those are tax dollars we have are lost,” Degenfelder said. “And we have built an economy around those tax dollars.”
Oil and gas developers pay severance taxes at a rate of 6 percent of market value. According to the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, over 52 percent of the state’s total revenue came from mineral extraction in 2017.
When operators are shut out, they head elsewhere — to Texas or North Dakota, explained Degenfelder.
“Industry has gotten a red light,” he said.