More prime sage grouse habitat is open for drilling

The Trump administration will allow oil and gas leasing in key sagebrush lands.

 

The Trump administration has been making it easier for oil and gas companies to drill wells in prime habitat for greater sage grouse. At the end of the year, the Bureau of Land Management officially rewrote important guidance for field staff in charge of leasing parcels of federal land for future oil and gas drilling. But statistics show the staff had already gotten that message: Federal leasing in sage grouse habitat increased dramatically in Wyoming last year and likely will expand further this year.

The BLM plans to offer seven times more acres of sage grouse habitat in its first quarter lease sale in Wyoming this year than it did in its first quarter lease sale last year, according to BLM data analyzed by The Nature Conservancy and confirmed by the BLM. “Once the lands are leased, that limits options for protection of this habitat,” says Holly Copeland, the conservation scientist who analyzed the data. Although environmental groups filed in March and September last year against leasing in key sage grouse areas in Wyoming, the BLM rejected them, emphasizing President Donald Trump’s March on energy and economic growth.

Sage grouse on a lek in breeding season in Fremont County, Wyoming.

As Trump pushes for greater energy production, his administration is altering the delicate balance between energy development and grouse protections that had been established as a result of an unprecedented 2015 agreement between Western states, conservation groups, industry and the federal government. That collaboration kept greater sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species, which would have required much more stringent protections.

Late last month, the BLM’s Obama-era instructions for oil and gas leasing in sage grouse habitat were rewritten. The original instructions prioritized leasing in areas that don’t offer good sage grouse habitat. As a result, since 2015, the BLM had refused to offer many leases requested by industry because of concerns for sage grouse. (For example, the first quarter 2017 lease sale, prepared under the Obama administration, withheld 46 parcels of federal land from future drilling.)

By contrast, the new version of the instructions emphasizes: “In effect, the BLM does not need to lease and develop outside of (greater sage grouse) habitat management areas before considering any leasing and development within (greater sage grouse) habitat.” Wyoming has the most and best sagebrush habitat of any state and nearly 40 percent of the remaining birds, but in its December lease sale, BLM Wyoming withheld only three parcels because of sage grouse. Thirty-eight of 41 parcels sold were in sage grouse habitat.

Under the old instructions, energy companies were often frustrated, says Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry trade group. “What’s important is the previous instruction memorandum put leases and permits at the bottom of the pile if they were in priority habitat,” she says. “This does not.”

But advocates for the bird’s conservation accuse the Trump administration of ignoring the science that drove the 2015 sage grouse agreement. “That was the biggest landscape-scale conservation plan we’ve ever done,” says , a biologist with the National Audubon Society who has worked on sage grouse conservation for 14 years. Although changes should be expected, he says, “the changes need to be done with science in mind. The Department of Interior is trying to do as little as possible for the land and animals in their care, placing at risk the future of that landscape and that ecosystem.”

State officials, however, downplay the new guidance. “We didn’t have any issues with it,” says John Swartout, energy advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “The change in guidance means little compared to any potential change in the plans.”

Oil and gas leases in key sage grouse habitat will still come with protective restrictions, notes Bob Budd, who chairs Wyoming Governor Mead’s sage grouse implementation team. For instance, permits prohibit companies from disturbing the ground on or near a lek, where sage grouse gather for mating displays. “We were leasing in core areas before this,” he says. “It’s how you do it, not where you do it.” Industry officials agree, saying there is no need to limit leasing because modern drilling techniques allow companies to reach oil and gas deposits from a mile or two away.

But scientists find many negative impacts on the birds’ survival even when companies follow rules such as building roads at least .6 miles away from leks and refraining from drilling during mating and nesting seasons. Several scientists assert in , a 2011 book, “It has become apparent that sage-grouse conservation and energy development are incompatible in the same landscapes.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • We are hiring a Wyoming Conservation Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Cody, WY (preferred), Jackson, WY, or Lander, WY Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for...
  • The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • 2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...