Next year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether or not to list the sage grouse as an endangered species. It has the potential to be a watershed moment, and not just for the bird, whose numbers have been in steady decline for a half-century.
Wyoming’s economy is built on the sagebrush steppes sage grouse call home. Some 15.3 million acres, or 25 percent of the state, is considered important habitat for the bird.
Ranchers rely on these windswept lands to graze their cattle. Oil, gas and mining companies drill holes in the dusty surface to access the rich treasure trove of hydrocarbons and minerals underground.
Listing the sage grouse as an endangered species could greatly restrict those activities across much of Wyoming.
State policymakers and those with ranching and mineral interests hope they can avoid that scenario. Their hopes rest on a state plan, known officially as the core area strategy, aimed at reversing the sage grouse’s decline without hampering the industries that underpin Wyoming’s economy.
It’s a delicate balance.
Supporters of the plan say it is the best attempt devised to date at preserving both sage grouse and Wyoming’s keystone industries. Its critics say the strategy is nothing more than an elaborate political circus, one that will ultimately end in the bird’s extinction.
The strategy was implemented under former Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, and expanded under Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican. It restricts development in areas deemed to be important sage grouse habitat, establishes a 0.6-mile buffer around nesting sites and imposes seasonal work stoppages intended to reduce disturbances during the bird’s nesting season.
Early indications suggest the federal government likes the idea. Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management adopted the core area strategy as part of a new management plan for 2.4 million federal acres around Lander. The move was widely seen as an endorsement of Wyoming’s efforts.
Pat Deibert, Fish and Wildlife National Sage Grouse Conservation Coordinator, praised the strategy in an interview with reporters after a press conference announcing the plan.
"This plan puts into place the Wyoming core area strategy, which we have supported as an effective conservation tool for maintaining large open spaces, which the sage grouse require, while also allowing the economic development that's essential to the Western economy,” Deibert told the Associated Press.
But others are not so convinced.
Clait Braun studied sage grouse for three decades as a researcher at the Colorado Division of Wildlife before retiring in 2009. The measures outlined in Wyoming’s plan are not designed to protect sage grouse, he says. They are designed to ensure tax revenue generated by energy and mining interests continue to flow.
He calls the 0.6-mile buffer around leks “arbitrary.” The buffer was adopted by BLM in 1982 and later in Wyoming’s grouse plan to facilitate oil and gas development, Braun says. Grazing allowed in core areas is even more damaging, he argues, as cattle eat the vegetation sage grouse use to nest.
If Wyoming and federal policymakers were serious about protecting sage grouse, they would establish 200 to 400 square mile reserves where development and grazing are prohibited, Braun says.
He isn’t holding his breath for that proposal to be adopted any time soon.
“With the politics and the economics as they are, I think they’re gonners,” Braun said of the sage grouse. “It’s a matter of time.”
The core of core areas, as Wyoming Sage Grouse-Program Coordinator Tom Christiansen likes to call it, lies to the south and east of Lander. This is one of the last great bastions of the bird, a place where the expanse of sagebrush is so great it can have a dizzying effect on a person looking out over the land.
The sage grouse’s survival will be decided in places like this one. Wyoming accounts for 26 percent of the bird’s occupied range in North America and 37 percent of the world’s sage grouse population.
The area around Lander is prime habitat because it is relatively undisturbed by people, making it something of a rarity in this day and age.
Habitat loss is widely believed to be the primary driver behind the bird’s decline.
Sagebrush is much like an old growth forest. It takes decades to grow, meaning it can take generations to recover from disturbances. For sage grouse, who depend on the vegetation for nesting and cover from predators, the loss is the equivalent of losing your home and waiting for your grandchildren to rebuild.
Energy development is just one of the threats to sage grouse habitat.
Agriculture covers roughly 47 percent of the 190,000 square miles in the bird’s range, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The rapid increase of cities and towns throughout the West also poses a threat, as habitat is lost and fragmented with the construction of homes and roads.
Core areas like the one around Lander are designed to maintain open spaces where they exist, Christiansen says. Others, like the one around Douglas, are aimed at minimizing impacts in areas where energy development is occurring at a rapid clip.
The state calculates 84 percent of disturbances within core areas have met the terms of the core area strategy. The remaining 16 percent comprise areas with preexisting disturbances, the state officials say. And in those instances developers have committed to reclamation effort, they note.
Chesapeake Energy, for example, agreed to pay $2.8 million for habitat restoration in exchange for the ability to develop leases secured before the strategy went into effect in 2008.
“I’m proud of Wyoming to pull together something like this. You don’t see this many places,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Department Habitat Protection Supervisor Mary Flanderka. “They really are trying to balance conservation, economic and other needs to conserve the bird.”
The strategy has won plaudits from parties as diverse as the National Audubon Society and Anadarko Petroleum to the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Casper-based uranium mining company UR-Energy.
Companies said the strategy comes at a cost to business. Still, they said it is a cost worth paying.
Anadarko employs about 100 employees who work directly or indirectly on sage grouse related issues. They range from GIS specialists and reclamation experts to contract biologists and lawyers. The company has also sought to tailor its operations in ways that limit their impacts on sage grouse and other wildlife.
One particular problem has been the standing water stored in open pits in the Powder River Basin, where Anadarko has coal-bed methane wells. Water is a byproduct of coal-bed methane production. The open pits present a challenge because they foster mosquitos carrying West Nile Virus, which is lethal to sage grouse. To address that problem the company built a 48-mile water pipeline to store produced water.
“Anadarko supports Wyoming’s leadership and common sense Core Area Policy,” said Dennis Ellis, a government policy adviser with Anadarko in Cheyenne. “While the policy does make it more challenging to conduct business operations and increases the time to obtain permits, we do believe the core area policy achieves the right balance and is an important piece of conserving habitat.”
UR-Energy CEO Wayne Heili, whose company worked with Game and Fish to see their Lost Creek insitu uranium mine permitted in a core area, put it this way: “There is no denying that for the privilege of operating in a core area we have incurred a significant expense to monitor populations.
“We need to have a high regard for the environment and where we do business,” Heili continued. “Clearly sage grouse is a species the state and western states are concerned about, and we shouldn’t be exempt from that.”
Wyoming has spent $7.9 million on sage grouse conservation since 2005. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has spent $77 million in conservation easements and other measures on private lands in Wyoming alone, and $236 million throughout the West.
All of which begs the question: are the conservation measures working?
Sage grouse populations have undulated in Wyoming for the last half century. In the mid-1960s, the average lek statewide peaked at over 60 males per lek, according to Game and Fish data. The average fell to below 30 in the early 1970s before almost reaching 40 later that decade.
The trend continued in the years to follow. Statewide averages began approaching 10 males per lek in the mid-1990s, an all-time low. By 2000, it was up more than 30, before dropping down near 20 and rebounding almost as quickly to exceed an average of 40 about 2005.
It has been steadily downhill since. Recent years have seen the average dip below 20 males per lek again.
Wyoming officials and some biologists say these ups and downs are part of a natural cycle. Sage grouse occupy the role of prey in the food chain, and their numbers increase and decrease with the level of predators like coyotes and ravens. When predator numbers increase, sage grouse are down. When predator numbers are down, sage grouse are up.
These cycles make it hard to tell whether the core area strategy has been successful in the six years since its implementation. It will likely take decades to know whether the strategy is working, Christiansen, the state sage grouse coordinator, said.
“It’s not the answer anyone wants to hear,” he said. “Grouse is a long lived bird. The habitat takes time to recover.”
But, he added, “Certainly what we have in the core area policy, from a sage grouse perspective, is far better than what we had a decade before. I tend to agree with Fish and Wildlife’s comment that the core area policy should work if it is implemented.”
Braun, the former Colorado researcher, is a prominent critic of the sage grouse cycle theory. He penned a study in the 1980s questioning the connection to predation. Population dips coincide with periods of dryness and, he says, the connection to predators has not been definitely proven, though one 2010 study argues otherwise.
Despite the peaks and valleys, Braun argues, the data all trend the same direction: down.
“I don’t see it stopping,” he said.
A recent study by The Nature Conservancy, the University of Wyoming and the Sage Grouse Initiative, an NRCS program aimed at reversing the bird’s decline, offered a different perspective. It found that without any conservation protections, the combination of energy development, agriculture and urbanization could threaten 30 percent of the bird’s population.
The state’s core area strategy would reduce those losses by 9 to 15 percent statewide. An additional 9 to 11 percent of habitat loss could be prevented by combing the state strategy with $250 million in targeted conservation easements, the study found.
David Naugle is a professor in the Biology Department at the University of Montana and a national science advisor for the Sage Grouse Initiative who was an advisor on the study. Asked if measures like those outlined in the report were sufficient to reverse the bird’s decline, Naugle deferred.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said.
Ultimately, that question will be decided by the Fish and Wildlife Service next year, Naugle said.