It is disingenuous to claim Wyoming’s collaborative greater sage grouse conservation efforts are a landmark success. Neither the state nor federal sage grouse plans provide anywhere near the basic level of habitat protections that these birds need to survive. The proof is in the plummeting grouse population numbers and the failure to achieve a population rebound.
The state and federal plans — both the 2015 version and the newer, weaker 2019 edition from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt — deliver business-as-usual permissions to the industries responsible for the perilous state of sage grouse populations today. These plans prescribe continued destruction of sagebrush habitat, even in areas designated as the highest priority for sage grouse. They will continue to drive this remarkable bird closer to extinction.
Former Governor Dave Freudenthal made a grave error by entrusting sage grouse conservation to collaborative compromise, and none of his successors have corrected his mistake.
Industry representatives and their allies dominated Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, each with a vested interest in minimizing sage grouse protections and allowing continued oil and gas extraction, livestock operations and the proliferation of the infrastructure that supports these industries where greater sage grouse live.
The unsurprising outcome was that thousands of acres of high-density sage grouse strongholds were excluded from important “core area” protections if they conflicted with plans to create industrial sacrifice zones. Habitat protections were far too weak to maintain healthy grouse populations in the areas that did receive the designation.
These plans ignored scientific findings. In 2011, the Bureau of Land Management convened a National Technical Team of state and federal sage grouse experts who released a comprehensive review of the science in 2011. This came in response to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finding that sage grouse warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The sage grouse experts recommended specific management prescriptions. Both state and federal plans in Wyoming fall short of meeting these criteria.
For example, the technical team said priority habitats should be closed to future oil and gas leasing and coal mining. Instead, the 2015 Obama administration plans only called for “prioritization” of oil and gas leases outside grouse habitats and limited mining in areas with the highest number of remaining birds, designated “sagebrush focal areas.”
The Trump and new state plans, however, allow leasing and mining throughout sage grouse habitat to be fast-tracked.
The experts prescribed 4-mile buffers around sage grouse leks to protect nesting habitats from roads and well sites. The Obama, Trump and state plans offer a measly and damaging 0.6-mile buffer, subject to waiver.
The expert team prescribed a 3 percent disturbance cap applied to each square mile. The Obama, Trump and state plans allow 5 percent disturbance – easily accommodating full-field oil and gas development at the standard density of 4 wells per square mile – and make those protections optional, not mandatory. The experts also prescribed a maximum of one well site or industrial location per square mile. Wyoming developed a complicated Disturbance Density Calculation Tool, a sneaky ploy to violate site-density standards.
The Obama, Trump and state plans adopted this cheat, averaging well density across large areas, sometimes hundreds of square miles of remaining pristine habitat. That allowed clusters of wells inside the so-called “core areas” that are supposed to afford protection for sage grouse.
For each of the above thresholds, no scientific study, ever, has supported the permissive level of industrial development allowed under the Wyoming and federal plans.
The team deferred specific guidance on livestock grazing, but studies in Wyoming (and throughout the West) found that when livestock graze the grass shorter than 7 inches, sage grouse nest success drops significantly. In addition, a state of Wyoming study found that collisions with barbed-wire fences killed as many as 146 grouse in a 5-mile stretch over two and a half years. The Wyoming state plan wrongly declares these to be “de minimis activities” that require no conservation measures.
New science shows major detrimental effects to sage grouse from noise, but the Obama, state and Trump plans allow ongoing sonic impacts to the birds from drilling and production. In addition, recent science about winter habitats show that oil and gas development displaces sage grouse from their habitats even outside of the breeding and brood-rearing seasons, yet the Obama, Trump and state plans allow virtually unlimited development in these areas, as long as it occurs in the winter.
Wyoming’s state plan is essentially identical to the Trump administration’s weakening of the original federal plans, which themselves abandoned the science-based standards necessary to protect grouse from these harmful practices. All of these weak regulations and industry-friendly workarounds are a recipe for extinction.
Sage grouse populations cycle up and down, but presently the Wyoming birds are down 44 percent since 2016. The premature downturn raises concerns that this magnificent bird is trending toward record population lows.
We’re serious about greater sage grouse conservation, and we know that science shows the best way to achieve it. The pitiful half-measures by state and federal regulators ignore the science and ensure ongoing decline of greater sage grouse. Wyoming and its wildlife deserve better.
Signatories: Western Watersheds Project, American Bird Conservancy, WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity, Bighorn Audubon Society, and the Prairie Hills Audubon Society.
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