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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.

Nearly all upcoming federal leases for oil and gas in Wyoming — covering about 1.3 million acres — are in the habitat of a protected bird, conservation groups reported Wednesday.

The National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation, say the Interior Department is taking a no-holds-barred approach to leasing for drilling in sage grouse areas, both its most crucial habitat and general range.

Across Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming about 75 percent of upcoming lease sales are in the bird’s neighborhood, the groups said. In Wyoming it’s closer to 99 percent, about half in non-core habitats.

The issue revives a lingering debate about whether restrictions on drilling will disincentivize development in the areas identified as crucial for the bird or if stronger rules are necessary.

Many in the conservation community want to keep rules in writing that push oil and gas out of the bird’s best areas when possible. Others say red tape at the leasing phase creates more problems than it solves. The limits on drilling in Wyoming’s key habitats keep development at bay, they say.

The Bureau of Land Management proposed lifting a rule that instructs land managers to try to keep drilling outside of key habitat — among other changes — last fall. The public’s ability to weigh in ends in August.

Opened plans

The sage grouse sits at the center of a number of interests in the West, from conservation to ranching to energy development. The bird’s numbers have fallen dramatically from heights in the 20th century due to encroachment on and fragmentation of their habitat. In places like Wyoming that comes down to ranching, roads, mines and oil and gas.

The bird’s near-listing as an endangered species in recent years spurred a state, federal and private partnership that many considered successful. State and federal management plans, much of it achieved with Wyoming leadership, staved off a listing two years ago.

However, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, formerly of Montana, announced last summer that Western anger over the plans had given him pause. The federal plans — which largely mirror Wyoming’s approach of identifying areas with the most birds and applying strict provisions on development there — were opened for review. Among topics up for change is language in current plans that prioritize conservation in the sage grouse’s protected habitats and drilling outside of those core areas.

Priority versus priorities

Conservation groups and their supporters Wednesday said the Bureau of Land Management is jumping the gun with its leasing practices and that oil and gas is now taking priority over the bird’s protections.

“The federal administration in Washington is not honoring the negotiated terms of the deal,” said Pete Arnold, a wildlife photographer in Wyoming, in a statement from the conservation groups Wednesday. “They don’t seem to appreciate that the plans approved in 2015 are good for us here in Wyoming.”

Of course there are many, included Gov. Matt Mead, who took issue with the prioritization approach. Detractors say it was ill-defined and badly applied.

The governor was not available for comment Wednesday, but his policy advisory noted in a sage grouse management meeting June 13 that the additional restrictions on drilling applied in key habitat push away many developers. The rules are both costly and time-consuming.

Those stipulations include limits on when drilling can occur during the year, stricter restrictions on surface disturbance like access roads and noise caps.

“There is an economic incentive and ease of regulatory burden to go to non-core areas,” said Mike McGrady, Mead’s policy advisor. “So it prioritizes itself to some extent.”

Swaths of the West

In Wyoming, home to the lion’s share of the sage grouse habitat in the West, 99.9 percent of upcoming leases are in sage grouse habitat. About 53.3 percent of upcoming lease sales are in priority areas, according to the conservation groups.

“The most practical way to have both responsible drilling and sage grouse conservation is to drill where the bird isn’t,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, the National Wildlife Federation’s associate vice president for public lands. “The sage grouse conservation plans made that commitment, yet the Department of Interior is charging forward and ignoring it in big swaths of the West,”

Bob Budd, chairman of Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team, disagrees with the frustration over leasing in the bird’s habitat. Wyoming has allowed leasing in core habitat for years, he said.

The uptick now is likely due to the number of areas in the bird’s habitat that were consistently deferred for lease sales over the last few years.

Leases are not the important issue. Leases don’t guarantee drilling, permits to drill do, he said.

“The stipulation and the protections in Wyoming are done at the permitting stage,” he said. “If you look at the track record we’ve had the last several years inside core, there hasn’t been a lot of development.”

Budd also noted the rapid development of drilling practices in recent years that has significantly cut disturbances for the bird. Where oil and gas used to mean multiple pads and multiple wells, drillers now can operate from a single well pad and send a host of wells under the surface for miles.

An approaching deadline

Conservationist groups like Audubon and the Wyoming Outdoor Council are gearing up for the final days of the public comment on suggested changes to the federal sage grouse plans. Two public meetings will be held in Wyoming next week, one in Cheyenne and one in Pinedale.

Opponents to the suggested changes, which include removing the contested prioritization language, say the West is flirting an endangered species listing down the road.

The threat that originally brought many sides together on sage grouse in Wyoming remains a concern for most involved. A listing would greatly restrict oil and gas development, threaten Wyoming’s fossil fuel revenue streams and create a controversy that may unravel the Endangered Species Act, a key tool for conservationists.

During an oil and gas hearing in May, Wyoming’s governor chastised a company for drilling past a no-drill date near sage grouse habitat, noting how much is on the line for Wyoming and energy development.

Public comment on the revisions is open until Aug. 2. The Bureau of Land Management intends to finish a draft environmental impact statement by October, marking one year since the plans were opened at Zinke’s request.

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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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