Wyoming is known for its central role in sage grouse conservation, but it is not only the state with the largest sage grouse habitat. It is the state with the most overlap with oil and gas development in protected areas, according to a recent study from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
The takeaway from the report is that the seven states that hold the largest sage grouse habitats and populations can coexist with development, according to Backcountry.
“Energy development is an appropriate and necessary use of our public lands, particularly in the West, yet it must be pursued responsibly and in the right places,” said John Gale, conservation director for BHA, in a statement.
“Our report shows that the vast majority of greater sage grouse habitat is ill-suited to energy development of any kind, now or in the future – and that more than three-quarters of areas potentially suited to energy production are located outside areas important to sage grouse.”
There is only a 4 percent overlap with existing mineral leases or mineral split-estates and the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Services’ Priority Habitat Management Areas for the chicken-sized bird. Nearly 80 percent of federal lands and minerals within those habitat areas have a low to very low potential for development, according to the analysis.
According to the study, Wyoming and to some degree Colorado have the greatest challenge with overlapping mineral leases and development potential in sage grouse areas.
A little more than 10 percent of the bird’s priority habitat, within Wyoming borders, is currently leased for oil and gas development, or about 1.7 million acres, according to the study. That far exceeds the second-largest crossover with existing development, Colorado, which has a little over 300,000 acres leased in federal priority habitat for the grouse.
The amount of Wyoming land that has a high potential for oil and gas development in priority habitat significantly outstrips five other states at 32 percent, according to the study.
The numbers are more dramatic in a simple count of leases. States like Idaho and California have zero existing leases within priority habitat. Montana and Utah have more than 100. Wyoming has 3,005.
Concern for balancing energy development with other public land uses and allowing more state flexibility in sage grouse management is an ongoing struggle in Western states that depend on energy industry revenue. This is nowhere more true than in Wyoming, where the majority of oil and gas development falls on public land and the three largest fossil fuel industries account for three-fourths of state income.
Federal and state management plans were credited with staving off an endangered species listing in late 2015 that many feared would have derailed energy development, bruising state economies. But concern that energy development can be better represented in the plans justifies a current review of the management plans that protect grouse habitat, announced by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week.
Ideas such as captive breeding and setting population targets were raised multiple times by the secretary to the consternation of those in Wyoming that have spearheaded efforts to conserve the species by focusing on habitat preservation and restoration. Both environmental groups and industry leaders made significant compromises in developing Wyoming’s state plans and in assisting the federal agencies with their own habitat strategies.
Sage grouse populations have fallen by half largely due to habitat erosion but also increased predation and disease due to habitat changes. The bird’s population generally rises and falls in 10-year increments, but highs have been lower in each successive cycle.
Though sage grouse live in 11 western states and parts of Canada, the majority of the bird’s habitat is in Wyoming. Habitat and development is in particular conflict in regions like the Powder River Basin in the state’s northeast and the Green River Basin in the southeast.
However, according to the study, the highest potential for oil and gas development, 71 percent, lies outside protected areas, even in Wyoming.