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Wyoming team updates key sage grouse conservation plan

Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team on Wednesday recommended Gov. Matt Mead revise his Greater Sage Grouse Executive Order to prohibit development — oil and gas activity, in particular — in areas where the birds concentrate during winter months. That would apply in a planned gas field, until more study is in.

The recommendation was one of several the 23-member SGIT made as it wrapped up recommendations for the first revision of state protections for the iconic bird in five years.

Gov. Matt Mead, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will make a conservation announcement at 10 a.m. today at the Horse Barn at Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne. U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Robert Bonnie, U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze and Wildlife and Natural Trust Executive Director Bob Budd will join Gov. Mead.

The events could mark a confluence of greater sage grouse initiatives as the BLM and U.S. Forest Service revise federal land plans for nine administrative districts across Wyoming to better protect greater sage grouse.

Wyoming actions

Hen with brood

Greater sage grouse are social birds and flock together throughout the year. State leaders say they will come up with a plan for protecting identified winter concentration areas, which are thought to be key to the bird’s survival. (photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS)

The SGIT committee on Wednesday also recommended that Gov. Mead’s renewed executive order not add new core-area sage grouse protection where oil, gas and mineral leases were issued after Aug 1, 2008. That’s the date the first greater sage grouse executive order set limits on development — for oil and gas, and beyond — by defining core areas on a statewide map.

The team also made several changes to that core-area map, including removal of many areas that contain development, or lack viable grouse sagebrush habitat.

Next week Sage Grouse Implementation Team leader Bob Budd will meet with Gov. Mead to review the draft executive order. The decision not to develop the state’s only identified winter concentration area(s) until further study followed a lead by industry. This spring gas producer Jonah Energy pledged not to drill test wells in winter concentration areas in its proposed Normally Pressured Lance field until a federal environmental review is completed.

At issue are winter concentrations in Sublette and Sweetwater counties where 1,500 to 2,000 greater sage grouse flock in winter. Biologists have seen hundreds of birds use the concentration areas regularly.

SGIT leader Bob Budd says those identified WCA’s will be protected the instant Gov. Mead signs the new executive order — as will all future designated WCAs, whether inside or outside core areas. The only caveat being a different set of WCA mitigations will apply rather than lek-based core area mitigations.

G&F NPL_WinterCon map

This Game & Fish Department map shows the proposed NPL field, outlined in red at the bottom left, along with the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields, in red to the top right. Other outlines indicate sage grouse winter concentration areas and the proposed expansion of Gov. Matt Mead’s core-area protective zone. The troubled Yellowpoint breeding complex that covers some 35,000 acres across the northern part of the proposed NPL field is not depicted. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Some of those winter concentration areas are in the proposed NPL gas field where Jonah Energy has applied to drill at four times the allowable core-area densities. An adjacent core-area zone and its protections do not extend across the proposed NPL field, and SGIT earlier refused to recommend such an extension.

We know now that we have one area where huge numbers of birds get together in the winter outside of core,”  Budd said. “This one is the outlier. This is the one that doesn’t fit the paradigm. That doesn’t make it a core area; that makes it important to manage in the [winter] season. Part of the job of this group is to adapt to new knowledge when it comes in.”

Biologists have said some of the winter concentration areas around NPL also qualify as core areas, based on the state’s paradigm. They’ve also said that grouse from core areas should receive core-area protections when they migrate outside of core to survive winters. SGIT has not adopted their recommendations, and now considers winter concentration areas a separate and different category.

“Frankly I am somewhat pleased that we are not going to do anything until we get it right,” Budd said. “That’s probably a pretty damn strong stance to go with.”

The SGIT committee agreed to not designate any more winter concentration areas until it settles on a process to identify and manage such zones. That could take anywhere from six months weeks to a year, Budd said.

Industry first recommended winter pause

The proposed prohibition of drilling inside recognize winter concentration areas should not affect Jonah Energy or its NPL plans, for now. Jonah has said it would not drill test wells in winter concentration areas in the NPL until an environmental study is completed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which could happen in the next 18 months. Jonah wants to drill 3,500 wells on 141,000 acres.

A Game and Fish Department map shows about 15 places in the NPL region where greater sage grouse concentrate in the winter, but committee members treated them as a single area in discussions. Some of the winter concentration areas are outside the proposed NPL boundary. The BLM, which must consider approval of Jonah Energy’s proposal has mapped much of the NPL and some surrounding areas as “regional winter habitat.”

The team also recommended new language that would give industry more leeway on lands leased for potential drilling and development between 2008 and 2015. The existing executive order requires that a company receive development approval, not just a lease, before being exempted from core-area protection.

In other words, Wyoming’s original core areas plan had grandfathered areas where applications for permit to drill (APDs) were filed, but it did not apply to areas that were merely leased to operators — a precursor to filing an APD. Now areas that are under lease, without APDs filed, would be exempt from Wyoming’s core-area restrictions. Members of industry said designating core areas on top of existing leases could make companies wary of developing in Wyoming.

A greater sage grouse is seen near the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Wyoming. During public comment on Wednesday, former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal requested that a boundary be moved in the Seedskadee core area to not include a portion of FMC Corp.'s trona mine. (photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS)

A greater sage grouse is seen near the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Wyoming. During public comment on Wednesday, former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal requested that a boundary be moved in the Seedskadee core area to not include a portion of FMC Corp.’s trona mine. (photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS)

“We as a group encouraged and incentivized development in non-core,” Paul Ulrich of Jonah Energy said. “If we are going to come in and lay additional core and standards [on non-core areas], that completely removes any incentive for minor oil and gas to continue to invest in Wyoming.”

The committee’s recommended language would encourage development at low densities in such situations.

In the group’s May 6 meeting in Douglas it added about 200,000 acres of core area in southwest Wyoming, according to SGIT. It reviewed all the core area changes for the rest of Wyoming on May 27, representing about two-thirds of core area in the state, but a smaller number of sage grouse than represented in the southwest Wyoming habitat.

Most of the changes to the core areas map this week realigned the edges of core areas, sometimes adding, and sometimes removing.

SGIT removed several areas from core area designation in the Bighorn basin to open more land for bentonite mining near Thermopolis and Worland.

The group also removed lands from core area that historically contained sagebrush and served as a bridge connecting the Casper-region core area to the Powder River Basin. The region crosses I-25 in southern Johnson County, where sagebrush removal efforts for grazing 40 years ago converted the landscape almost entirely to grassland, which is not suitable for grouse.

The SGIT team declined to remove protection from areas near Douglas, which is among the last strongholds of sage grouse in a highly developed part of Converse County. Biologists and members of the Gov. Mead administration agree Powder River Basin populations of the greater sage grouse, and critical connectivity to Montana populations, may succumb, already exhibiting extinction trends.

“We have said in Wyoming you can have development and have sage grouse population,” Budd said. “If you take every example of that off the table you are saying you can’t develop and have birds. Frankly, this is the example of how you do it smart, and how you do it long-term.”

No grouse relief at Powder River

SGIT voted earlier not to add a large core area proposed by WildEarth Guardians in the Powder River Basin. The land contains dozens of sage grouse leks, despite being in the middle of a highly developed oil and gas region.

“The State of Wyoming should be designating these sage grouse habitats, which still harbor large sage grouse populations today, as core areas so that these lands can be managed back to a level of human impact that can sustain sage grouse over the long term,” Erik Molvar, sagebrush sea campaign director with WildEarth Guardians, told WyoFile.

In his view, Wyoming missed a chance to preserve this sage grouse habitat under the original executive order in 2008. That left the area open to coal-bed methane development, along with all its associated roads, pipelines and other infrastructure.

Molvar worries that the lack of protection in the Powder River Basin could lead to local extinction of the bird — along with a missing genetic link to populations in Montana — leading to isolation of populations in Montana and the Dakotas, and potential extinction across the Great Plains.

“This kind of looming failure sets the stage for a listing under the Endangered Species Act,” Molvar said.

Speaking to the entire core area mapping project statewide, Paul Ulrich with Jonah Energy said there is no cause for alarm.

The current map with the current boundaries, is more than sufficient,” Ulrich said. “Twenty-four percent of the state and 80 percent of the birds is the single greatest conservation effort taken for a single species. We still need that balance [with development].”

These sage grouse were observed during a lek count in April 2010, inside a "core area" designated habitat in south central Wyoming. North Table Rock is in background. (photo by Mark Bellis/USFWS)

These sage grouse were observed during a lek count in April 2010, inside a “core area” designated habitat in south central Wyoming. North Table Rock is in background. (photo by Mark Bellis/USFWS)

— WyoFile reporter Angus M. Thuermer Jr. contributed to this report.

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Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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