LANDER — Wyoming will let the federal government, not a state conservation plan for greater sage grouse, govern how a proposed gas field is developed in critical winter range, a state adviser said last week.
Sage Grouse Implementation Team member Brian Rutledge told a grouse mapping committee the state would let the U.S. Bureau of Land Management determine how Jonah Energy will be able to develop the proposed Normally Pressured Lance gas field in Sublette County. The mapping committee was preparing to vote whether to recommend state core-area protections under Gov. Matt Mead’s executive order be extended to cover 1,500 to 2,000 wintering grouse.
“I have also been told very clearly the [BLM’s Environmental Impact Statement] will be the determining factor on this,” Rutledge said to the mapping group last week. “We expect serious protections in core winter range habitat.” He was referring to an environmental review the BLM is undertaking that analyzes Jonah Energy’s proposal to drill 3,500 wells across 141,000 acres in western Wyoming.
Despite Rutledge’s statement, the mapping panel voted 6-4 to extend Mead’s core-area protections across the gas field, protections that would cut proposed drilling density by three-quarters. The core-area zoning that the mapping panel recommended would limit drilling to only one well pad per 640 acres while Jonah has proposed four times that density. It’s uncertain whether the larger Sage Grouse Implementation Team will accept the mapping panel’s recommendation in its final report to the governor.
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contemplates protecting the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act by October, western states have an opportunity to stave off a full listing by proving their own strategies ensure the bird’s protection. Wyoming’s core-area strategy, which is said to be the best state plan put forward to date, may be scrutinized based on whether it is adaptable to new scientific information. Protection of the recently documented winter concentration area at NPL could be a test.
The comments by Rutledge, a conservation representative on the governor’s 23-member SGIT and the vice president of Audubon’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office, caused others to question the reason for the statewide panel’s work. Local working groups, biologists and others have spent five years gathering data to support revisions to the governor’s order.
“If the decision has already been made, I don’t know why we’re talking about it,” SGIT member Brian Jensen said. The state wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, Jensen serves on the mapping subcommittee as well as the full SGIT board.
Rutledge and Jensen exchanged their comments at a mapping workshop the evening before members presented their split-vote recommendation to the full SGIT. SGIT will consider the map extension May 6 in Douglas. Gov. Matt Mead is expected to adopt or reject any proposed revisions by Aug. 18.
Although warned of the futility of recommending core-area protections, six members of the mapping committee did so nevertheless, according to the vote tally by Wyoming Game and Fish greater sage grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen. They supported an expanded core-area after Holly Copeland, an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy and a member of the mapping team, said the governor’s executive order protections called for changes based on new information.
State grouse planners skirted the conflict between the planned NPL development and the sage grouse winter concentration areas five years ago, she said. At the time, biologists were told to gather more information in anticipation of this year’s core-area revisions, which they then did.
Compelling new information
“We have compelling new information — 1,500 to 2,000 grouse,” Copeland told the mapmakers. “I would feel remiss representing the bird and the ecology saying there shouldn’t be a line on the map representing that important habitat.”
Others may choose to ignore the biology, she said. But, “it’s the charge of this group to put those on the map,” Copeland said. “This is one [area] with compelling information.”
Rutledge and Jensen joined Copeland, Christiansen and agriculture representative David Pellatz of Douglas in recommending the entire SGIT expand core-area protection across much of the proposed NPL field in its own pending recommendations to the governor. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wyoming field supervisor, Mark Sattelberg, also sided with them. His agency is considering restrictions on activities and development across 165 million acres of sagebrush country in 11 western states.
Wyoming’s plan and actions are important to Sattelberg’s federal agency because Wyoming holds an estimated 38.8 percent of the world’s greater sage grouse population. The population of the North American bird numbers somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000, according to USFWS figures.
“For us, it’s still up in the air,” Sattelberg told fellow SGIT members when the entire committee met Wednesday. He told the mapping committee earlier of a new study of wintering grouse that showed “they are very sensitive to disturbance. Hopefully when BLM looks at their EIS they’ll also look at that,” he said.
As Jonah Energy continues to seek BLM approval for its 3,500 wells, a process that could take another year and a half, the company will not drill test wells in winter concentration areas, a representative said.
“We’re committed to suspend any interim development in NPL acreage,” Paul Ulrich, Jonah Energy’s director of government affairs and regulations and a SGIT member told the group. He later specified that the commitment involved winter concentration areas that only cover a portion of the proposed NPL field.
“We’re making that commitment today until we get through the EIS process,” he said. Ulrich will put the commitment in writing and release it once Gov. Mead receives it, he said.
“The concept that there was a lot of conflict over this is a little overblown,” Ulrich said. “All of us want to make sure that winter concentration area is protected.”
If the BLM’s environmental impact statement was not underway “I think we’d all say we support that [core area expansion],” SGIT member Pellatz said. “Yes it’s significant,” he said of the winter concentration areas. “We’re very much informing that EIS process and we anticipate that will be satisfactory.”
One mapping panel member said it would be unfair to change ground rules once Jonah Energy had started down the road to plan for development. Under the core-area strategy, SGIT member Lyndon Bucher said, development is encouraged outside mapped core-area zones, such as NPL.
“Somebody starts down the road all in good faith,” said Bucher, a SGIT member and the permitting and reclamation representative of the bentonite firm AMCOL International. “I can’t in good conscience say now we’re going to change the rules of the game in the middle of the game,” he told the mapping group. “That’s something the full SGIT needs to come to grips with. How do we accommodate these long-term projects and bring in adaptive management — new information.”
SGIT will soon officially determine whether the BLM environmental impact statement is the proper method to protect a bird that the federal government says is warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The NPL environmental review will only react to Jonah Energy’s development plan and analyze it according to a range of alternatives. It is not expected to address drilling on greater sage grouse winter concentration areas that extend beyond NPL boundaries.
BLM to govern NPL development?
BLM deputy state director Buddy Green, a member of the mapping subcommittee, voted against state core-area expansion. “The school of thought out there is to essentially let the EIS process work,” he told the full SGIT Wednesday. “When this winter-concentration issue surfaced, people felt very strongly about it at the time.”
SGIT leader Bob Budd appointed a subcommittee to come up with ideas how to address the problem, Green said. “They did that, they provided that recommendation,” Green said. “That process has happened, the EIS is bubbling. What comes out will have the protection people are looking for in this area.”
The winter concentration report documented winter use of the NPL by grouse from protected core areas in Sublette County and said grouse avoid developed energy fields and human activity.
“We know they’re not in Jonah any more with that level of development,” Game and Fish’s Christiansen said of wintering grouse and the already-developed gas field neighboring NPL. “With this density of wells,” he said of NPL, “I’m sure they’re going to move.”
Where they would go if pushed off NPL is uncertain. Conservationists point to energy development surrounding NPL and the winter concentration areas and wonder where grouse might go.
Maps show the winter concentration areas make up perhaps less than a fifth of the proposed NPL field. Yet their ability to survive may depend greatly on that wintering habitat — which is key to the success of surrounding sage grouse core areas.
BLM spokeswoman Kristen Lenhardt said Friday Jonah Energy has not yet applied to drill any test wells.
“Jonah Energy does not intend to pursue interim drilling in the Winter Concentration Areas but does wish to in areas outside of the WCAs,” she said in an email. “BLM does not know details as to what Jonah exactly plans, only that they are looking at ‘a few multi-well pads’ outside of the WCAs for interim drilling. The original NPL proposed action included drilling in the WCAs.”
This year’s SGIT review of core areas — an exercise undertaken only twice a decade — shouldn’t even involve winter concentration areas, SGIT chairman Budd, told his team Wednesday.
“This exercise is primarily to look at core areas,” the director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund Board said. The core area map was based on known breeding leks and rearing habitat. “Winter is a different animal,” Budd said.
“We do know we have a winter concentration in western Wyoming,” he said. “We recognize that in the Executive Order and will continue to recognize that. The issue is that this area is somehow going to be drilled or somehow impacted in the future. It is not.”
Others were less confident of an outright drilling ban. Rutledge, for example, has said that BLM might issue rules that limit operations during certain seasons — like winter, a prohibition industry has so far resisted. More often such seasonal stipulations have been aimed at breeding leks, brooding and rearing habitat. But the wintering habits of greater sage grouse have not been deeply studied.
Copeland, who doesn’t sit on the SGIT board itself, said core-area protections for greater sage grouse are meaningless if they don’t protect entire “life-cycle environments” of the bird.
“We have a case where that isn’t captured in the boundaries on the map,” Copeland told the SGIT, urging members to extend boundaries on the core-area map. “Why not codify it,” Copeland said about the winter concentration areas.
Instead, “I think we can add an area of concern,” Budd said. “This is one anomaly in 11 states [where] we have significant number of birds that are not [wintering] in proximity to core,” he said.
Looking for protections
Fish and Wildlife’s Sattelberg said Mead’s revised executive order will likely define winter concentration areas. “It will need additional protections,” he said of the winter habitat. “Those protections just haven’t been set yet. That’s what the EIS process will hopefully do.”
Biologists say the winter concentration areas are different from other seasonal grouse habitat in that they attract sage grouse from a wide region — essentially all of northern Sublette County — to several spots. As such, winter concentration areas might be more valuable — acre per acre — than breeding leks, brooding and rearing habitat around which the governor’s core-area protection zone was drawn.
Rutledge underscored that difference to the mapping group, saying it struggled with adding or subtracting single leks with as few as 18 strutting males from the core area. Yet in the winter concentration area there are thousands of birds.
“If we had 1,000 birds anywhere else.…” he said, suggesting they would receive core-area protections. “This is an explosive issue and very important to a couple of thousand birds.”
Although SGIT and working group members have repeatedly referred to Jonah Energy’s valid existing rights, nobody, including the BLM, has said whether core-area protections would diminish them.
“There seems to be some confusion [about] what it means to have valid existing rights,” Erik Molvar, a conservationists with WildEarth Guardians said to the mapping group. “One site on a leasehold — that’s what your lease right gives you.”
Jonah Energy’s NPL leases were consolidated into four federal units — a system to coordinate development — as early as 1996. Some leases in the NPL area — at least 1,880 acres — were sold as late as 2009, BLM said last week. Creation of a unit “does not grant any additional rights to the [lessee] other than what was already granted as part of the lease terms,” BLM’s Lenhardt said in an email Monday.