Update, March 13: Two University of Wyoming faculty members joined nine other scientists telling Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell she must adopt tougher sage grouse conservation measures in a Lander BLM plan “if there is any reasonable hope of avoiding an ESA listing,” for the troubled bird. The letter signed by William L. Baker and Jeffrey L. Beck, both Ph.Ds, and other sage grouse scientists is attached to the end of this story — Ed.
PINEDALE — A sage-grouse committee could not agree Thursday to protect newly documented grouse winter habitat, the largest in Wyoming, from gas development.
The move prompted one committee member to warn that the federal government would instead use the Endangered Species Act to give the bird sweeping new protections.
Two winter-concentration areas for sage grouse, not documented until recent years, hold an estimated 2,000 birds. Industry representatives are challenging data verifying the winter use.
The Upper Green River Basin Sage Grouse Working Group, which includes industry, wildlife scientist, and agency representatives, could not reach a consensus last week to recommend protection for what could be an estimated 60,000 acres of high-elevation undulating sagebrush desert. The state rejected protection five years ago when biologists presented sparser data on the winter concentration areas. Some members of the group say new data makes a compelling case for protection.
About half of the wintering area is BLM land in a 141,000-acre unit that’s being analyzed for development with 3,500 wells. The gas project, originally proposed several years ago, is called the Naturally Pressured Lance gas field. The “NPL” field, named for its target geologic formation, is south of Pinedale and adjacent to the existing Jonah Field which has produced massive amounts of natural gas.
Because of the planned gas development, the conflict over biological data regarding the wintering area has “political ramifications,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Dean Clause told the Upper Green River Basin Sage Grouse Working Group at its meeting in Pinedale on Thursday.
The dispute is expected to go next to the statewide Sage Grouse Implementation Team, and ultimately Gov. Matt Mead will decide between protection of the birds’ wintering area and the NPL project. Hanging in the balance is a federal Endangered Species listing, with dire implications for oil, gas and agriculture throughout the West..
Industry representatives in the Upper Green River group last week questioned some of the data on the birds’ winter use of the area, and made it clear they don’t want state sage grouse policy protections imposed where they would drill.
If the area is protected as core grouse habitat, “It kills the (NPL) project,” Jonah Energy representative Paul Ulrich said Thursday. Jonah Energy has taken over the NPL project from its original industry sponsor, Encana, which also was the main operator of the Jonah field. Ulrich was previously a spokesman for Encana.
“Billions in tax revenue”
“We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of jobs, billions in tax revenue,” he said.
At issue is whether the state can convince the federal government that its plan for protecting sage grouse precludes the need for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the bird endangered, a move that would prompt major federal protection for sage grouse.
Federal officials have identified southcentral and southwestern Wyoming as some of the most important sage grouse breeding country in the world. But Wyoming’s plan as it currently stands doesn’t protect the two wintering areas. The areas are not identified as “core areas” requiring protection under the state’s sage grouse policy.
Recent science says that a number of grouse who in warm seasons frequent areas that are identified as “core areas” under state policy then retreat, in cold months, to spend the winter in these two areas that are not labelled as core areas.
“These two areas make up what is likely the largest documented winter concentration flock in the state of Wyoming; an area which currently is not afforded the protections of the sage-grouse core area policy,” Clause and BLM biologist Dale Woolwine’s protection proposal says. Without protecting such areas, populations in core areas themselves would dwindle, scientists say.
Committee members Thursday described the winter concentration area as unique, critical and unheard of. Its protection as a Wyoming core area, or lack of that protection, could play a pivotal role in whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides this fall to list the grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, committee members said. Such a listing would require new federal protection that could result in land-use restrictions in 11 western states.
Wyoming and other Western states have been working to avoid such a listing. Wyoming officials estimate the federal land-use restrictions triggered by a listing would shut down the state’s energy and agriculture industries. In a recent letter to Gov. Matt Mead, Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell said that although a federal budget rider somewhat restricts what the Fish and Wildlife Service could do, the agency will nevertheless decide the grouse’s status in September.
The federal government is focused on the recently identified wintering grounds and watching whether Wyoming’s core-area sage grouse preservation strategy will work, committee members said. Gov. Mead this spring is revising core-area for the first time in five years and is expected to consider local and statewide committees’ recommendations.
In its meeting last week, the Upper Green committee debated whether the two wintering grounds should be identified as “core areas” to be protected under state policy.
“If we say ‘no,’ that’s grounds for the Fish and Wildlife Service saying ‘You know, this is not working,’” committee member Jennifer Hayward said of how federal officials will look at Wyoming’s core-area strategy. A representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, she pushed for expanding protection by recommending the two areas be declared “core areas.” The committee’s, and Wyoming’s, refusal to so identify these areas would be “a glaring beacon to the Fish and Wildlife Service that we passed on this.”
An industry representative, QEP Resources Inc’s Peter Guernsey, refused to budge. “I hate to be a glaring beacon,” he said. “We’re not going to reach consensus.”
Hayward tried several times to convince Guernsey to change his vote. “This is a pivotal discussion point on Fish and Wildlife Service listing — this decision,” she said. “There’s no other area I know of with this concentration of birds.”
Game and Fish’s lead sage grouse coordinator, Tom Christensen, told Ulrich and Guernsey the secret of the wintering grouse in these areas is out.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service is very aware of the winter use out here,” he said. “This will get identified. The data’s there.”
On one company’s shoulders?
Jonah Energy could shoulder responsibility for nationwide ESA restrictions to protect sage grouse, Hayward said. “I don’t want to gamble with 800 birds,” she said. “One company is potentially determining the outcome (of federal Endangered Species action) in 11 western states,” she said.
Guernsey wouldn’t buy the arguments or the descriptions of heavy use offered by biologists, saying they still don’t know how important the winter concentration area is.
“Where are they in the worst winters? Not just where are they in most winters,” Guernsey said of grouse. “I think your data are all over the place. I’d be remiss as an oil and gas (representative) to vote in favor of this.”
Instead, grouse protection in the proposed NPL field should be handled through the federal Environmental Impact Statement process, he and Jonah Energy spokesman Ulrich said. An environmental study on the proposed NPL field is three-quarters completed, Ulrich said. A BLM schedule says a draft was due out Feb. 20 but it has not yet been issued.
Jonah Energy needs to develop four well pads per 640-acre section, generally a mile by a mile, Ulrich said. Each pad would be an average of 18 acres, BLM documents show.
In contrast, core area restrictions call for no more than one well pad per 640 acres and only 5 percent of surface disturbance overall.
Four 18-acre pads on 640 acres amounts to 11 percent disturbance, not counting associated roads, pipelines, compressor stations and other facilities, according to calculations made by WyoFile.
“From my perspective, we can’t do it 1 per 640,” Ulrich said. “We spent millions and millions,” to buy the NPL leases. “We made a huge investment … with the understanding it was non-core.”
Jonah Energy would take care of the grouse, he said. “We have been out in this area talking to the BLM,” Ulrich said. “We know we can avoid it. The science doesn’t back up the level of protection (proposed) in this area.”
Sage grouse use of different habitats in summer and winter was documented as long ago as 1952 in the seminal work by Robert L. Patterson “The Sage Grouse in Wyoming.” Birds flocked together in early winter and as snow set in they flew “50 to 100 miles distant from their normal summer ranges,” he wrote.
Scientists didn’t immediately follow up on Patterson’s observation. “Most studies didn’t spend time getting winter locations,” biologist Clause told the group. In the last decade, grouse experts set out to find more.
“Since 1998, we’ve had collared birds (from core areas) scattered around,” he said. In 2004, the agency got funding for winter sage grouse observation flights.
“In 2005 we found a significant number of wintering birds — a huge flock of birds, over 1,000 birds,” in the winter concentration area now proposed for protection, Clause said. “Since that time, we’ve documented anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 birds. We probably have in the neighborhood of 1,500 to 2,000.”
Biologists are uncertain how many sage grouse are in the upper Green River basin population. “No reliable population estimate(s) have be(en) made from data collected during 2014 (or any of the previous years), due in part to unknown male:female sex ratios and since it is unknown if all active leks have been located,” a 2013 Wyoming Game and Fish Job Completion Report says.
A basin-wide winter retreat
Grouse wintering in the areas now focused on come from well-known Sublette County grouse habitat — Ryegrass Reservoir, the Pinedale Mesa, Cora, Grindstone and other areas, Clause said. All those areas are identified as protected core areas under the state’s sage grouse policy. “This kind of is a core-area deal. Last time we did propose this area (for core protection) in 2010, it didn’t get approved.” The radio collar data on grouse at that time showed only “an isolated polygon,” of habitat.
But more study has proved otherwise, allowing biologists to link the winter concentration areas to core areas by use and proximity. “The significance of this area is pretty phenomenal,” Clause said. “Biologically this is an important piece of ground. For it to sit out there in non-core doesn’t make sense to me.”
Maps submitted by Clause and BLM biologist Dale Woolwine appear to show some 35,000 acres of winter concentration area in the NPL boundaries submitted by Jonah Energy to the BLM. A similar amount of wintering grounds lies adjacent to the NPL, maps show.
To assess the value of the recent data on the wintering areas, the statewide Sage Grouse Implementation Team earlier tasked Dr. Josh Millspaugh, a University of Missouri professor, to review BLM and Game and Fish data. He determined in 2013 that 74 percent of sage grouse that wintered in the proposed Alkali Creek and Alkali Draw winter concentration areas were captured from leks (strutting and breeding grounds) in core areas. Fully 40 percent of grouse counted during winter flights in the area came from elsewhere.
“In other words, 40 percent of 2,000, or 800 sage-grouse wintering in this area, were determined to be coming from somewhere else; very likely from other core areas,” Clause and Woolwine argued in a written proposal.
Woolwine underscored the importance of giving the wintering areas protection by identifying them as core areas under state policy. “If that’s not core I don’t know what is,” he said of the Alkali wintering areas. “I think it would be a travesty to not put it forward … to not protect 2,000 birds. At our level as managers, we have to do this.”
“I would speculate that if we ended up with four wells per section, those birds would avoid that area.”
The scientific novelty and import of the data on the two new winter areas stunned BLM biologist Rusty Kaiser. “I don’t know where it happens at this level,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. The data here is so overwhelming and so unique, it would be wrong for us as a group to not put that forward. It’s a bad deal if we can’t see that as important.”
Grouse always use the winter concentration areas, Kaiser said. “It doesn’t matter if you have bare ground or two feet of snow,” he said, sage grouse arrive every year.
The birds are faithful to their winter range, committee member Hayward emphasized to Guernsey. “I wish we could teach these birds to not have high fidelity,” she said. “Moving lines doesn’t fix it. We can’t say ‘Now go over here.’ That is why this species is so sensitive.”
Game and Fish’s Clause agreed. “These same areas are where we’re finding 90 percent of the birds,” he said. They are there in the toughest winters, the lightest winters. It’s got to be pretty important habitat, with that many birds.”
The working group’s mission calls for it to maintain and enhance grouse numbers and habitat. Directions to local working groups like the Upper Green panel call for adjusting core-area boundaries based on new knowledge. Guidelines even hold up the area “west and south of the Daniel Core area, where existing core boundaries may not fully support actual bird use,” as a valid example of where the core area could be extended.
Clause questioned whether the working group could meet its charter without recommending expanded core grouse habitat in the NPL. “I can’t say we would,” he said.
Below is the March 12 letter to Secretaries Sally Jewell and Tom Vilsack: