FARSON — Wyoming’s greater sage grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen is a pretty consistent counter as he peers through a spotting scope at a flock of strutting greater sage grouse.
He sees about 100 males, clucking, puffing and strutting as the rising sun turns his “Golden Triangle” of grouse habitat into its namesake color. This is some of the best habitat in Wyoming, the state that hosts the world’s largest concentration of the troubled bird.
Perhaps nowhere in the widespread Western debate about greater sage grouse, grazing, energy development and recreation is there a greater focus than this area. Just over a highway from where Christiansen is counting, the fate of some 2,000 birds that winter on a proposed 3,500-well gas field will dog a state team that tomorrow debates how it might, or might not, protect them.
Christiansen squints into the spotting scope mounted on the window of his truck and clicks a counter. It takes a minute to sweep the lens across the entire lek — about 100 yards wide — and record this annual survey of strutting cocks. It’s one of about 1,000 leks that observers across the state will survey this spring.
As Christiansen focuses, some of the birds flit about. He counts 107 on the first sweep, 108 on the second and 109 on the third. But the scientific notations that seem sharpened by the chiseling light are straightforward compared to the task that Christiansen faces this week as he presents data to the appointed Sage Grouse Implementation Team.
Biologists want to protect up to 173,000 acres of unspoiled, rolling sage grouse habitat about 30 miles from Christiansen’s Golden Triangle and near the Jonah gas field in Sublette County. They’ve recommended extending a state core-area zone to do that. But Jonah Energy has said such protections would allow only 25 percent of its planned 3,500-wells across 141,000 acres in its proposed Normally Pressured Lance gas field.
As Christiansen prepares to brief Sage Grouse Implementation Team members today and tomorrow in Lander, a key conservation member says the panel has no authority to meddle in Jonah Energy’s new gas field plans. NPL is “out of our reach,” said SGIT member Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society’s Rocky Mountain region. Because of rules governing the state team, new restrictions can’t be imposed by the state on an already proposed gas field, he said.
Rutledge’s team is tasked to recommend new sage grouse protections — or the removal of old ones — to Gov. Matt Mead by the end of May. Among the issues that could influence protection include when energy companies bought NPL leases and whether they and the development plan predate a 2008 governor’s sage grouse protective order.
Valid existing rights
“There are valid existing rights [in NPL] and the approvals have been applied for and the EIS is underway,” Rutledge said in a recent interview. “It’s in the hands of BLM under EIS [review] now. We can’t intervene in that.”
Jonah Energy’s Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs and regulatory issues, has argued against extending state protections to cover NPL. But he said lease ownership itself doesn’t guarantee unbridled development. “An existing lease does not ensure your acreage is not in core area,” he said recently.
As the state considers the framework of the Governor’s executive order protecting grouse habitat through its Core-Area Strategy, WyoFile has found that some NPL leases were sold after adoption of the governor’s order in 2008. The BLM wasn’t available to confirm the sale dates and locations Monday morning.
Public notices available on the Wyoming BLM website offered leases for sale in 2009 with legal descriptions that locate them in what was later proposed as the NPL field the BLM is analyzing today. Calculations from the notices appear to show that at least 1,720 acres in the NPL in Sublette County weren’t leased by the BLM until a year after the governor’s executive order protecting core-area populations went into effect.
Wyoming’s sage grouse team members will have to interpret the governor’s executive order even as they revise it and its accompanying core-area map. Gov. Mead himself makes the final decision, but the federal government will be watching.
With 38.8 percent of the nation’s greater sage grouse population, what Wyoming does could influence whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife lists the bird on its threatened or endangered roster by October. One thing the agency has objected to is threats to core area populations, according to an unsuccessful protest filed against the 2009 lease sale at NPL.
Audubon was among the protesting parties, and a letter it signed quoted Fish and Wildlife Service upholding the sanctity of core area habitat and populations. Core areas were established as mitigation for allowing more development elsewhere, the protest letter said. Therefore, allowing development in core-areas or development affecting core-area populations and justifying that development by proposing yet more mitigation would undermine the entire core-area strategy, the protest said.
“The foundation of the [Wyoming Core-area] Strategy from the [U.S.Fish and Wildlife] Service point of view is that development in the most important sage-grouse habitats (core areas and associated seasonal habitats) is done only when no impacts to the species can be demonstrated,” the protest letter said.
The NPL project would cover some of the winter concentration areas that host birds from core area populations throughout Sublette County, biologists have said.
While Ulrich has painted Jonah Energy as “a small company with one asset — Jonah Field and NPL,” the company has larger owners. The private investment firm TPG created Jonah Energy in 2014 and spent $1.8 billion to buy the Jonah Field assets and related nearby leases in the proposed NPL area.
Jonah owners manage $67 billion in funds
TPG is a global firm that manages $67 billion in capital and focuses on sustainability in some of its portfolios. Its leaders are among the nation’s conservation elite.
TPG founder David Bonderman sits on the board of the Grand Canyon Trust, the governing council of The Wilderness Society, and has had other conservation roles. TPG senior advisor Edward M. Norton is founding president of the Grand Canyon Trust, a former Deputy Director of The Nature Conservancy and also possesses other substantial green credentials.
TPG’s profile could become larger following a report in the New York Post that says U2 frontman Bono has inked an investment deal with TPG Capital. Citing an unnamed source, the April 9 story said Bono is an advisor to a new Bonderman fund and has invested $3 million.
In Wyoming, however, Jonah Energy has fought adding core-area protection at NPL. Advocates seek core-area expansion over as much as 173,000 acres covering sage grouse winter concentration areas in and near the proposed NPL field.
Ulrich, who is a SGIT member, argues the statewide board and the governor shouldn’t extend core-area protection. Instead, a separate, ongoing environmental review of the NPL plan being undertaken by the BLM should take precedent.
The statewide team is working under rules that recognize “existing activities” that predate the Aug. 1, 2008 date in the governor’s executive grouse protection order and Core-Area Strategy. No recent meetings on changes to the core area have definitively answered whether NPL leases are immune from new core-area restrictions.
Archived BLM notices, however, provide a timeline of NPL activity and when some NPL leases were sold. The BLM, for example, announced in February, 2008 that Encana, the owner of Jonah Field and some nearby leases, proposed developing 85 wells across an NPL site that at that time was proposed at only 70,000-acres. The agency began an environmental review.
In June 2009, BLM offered for auction some additional parcels. Among those put up for “competitive oil and gas lease sale” on Aug. 4 that year was parcel WY-0908-047 that covered 2,200.2 acres.
Calculations made by WyoFile based on the lease sale notice show 1,720 acres of the sale are located in Sublette county’s Township 27 North, Range 108 West. A map provided by the BLM showing today’s proposed NPL analysis-area boundary includes all of Township 27.
A later notice by the BLM shows Contex Energy Company of Denver buying a 2,200.2-acre parcel at the Aug. 4 sale. It was the only parcel offered of that size and it sold for $17 an acre or a total of $37,417.
After the lease sale, Encana withdrew its NPL field proposal in 2010. Encana would come back with a bigger plan, the BLM said. It was not until April 2011 that BLM announced a new NPL proposal by Encana — this time at 141,080 acres and 3,500 wells. The boundary of that encompassed lands listed on the BLM’s Aug 4, 2009 lease sale.
So the BLM notices appear to indicate that portions of the proposed NPL field — at least about 1,720 acres — were not leased before the “grandfathering” deadline of Aug. 1, 2008 in the Governor’s Executive Order. BLM could not confirm WyoFile’s analysis on Monday.
While Wyoming officials have touted the notion that energy development can co-exist with wildlife, another BLM notice last week undercut that concept. At the Pinedale Anticline gas field just north of the Jonah Field and NPL area, the BLM said declines in the number of strutting sage grouse and active leks will trigger attempts to mitigate the losses.
The notice advertised a public meeting in Pinedale on Thursday at which managers and the public can discuss a 50 percent decline since 2007 in active leks in one area and a 36 percent decline in “peak number of males attending leks” in another.
On the Golden Triangle
While sage grouse politics swirls in anticipation of a federal decision regarding listing the bird for Endangered Species Act protection, sage grouse counting has gone well for Christiansen this year. Last week he counted 182 males, the standard unit of lek measurement, at a second breeding ground that stretched for half a mile.
As the sun rose higher, he drove, then hiked to yet a third barren patch in the arid expanse below the foothills of the Wind River Range. Was it an active lek this year? Would feathers, tracks and droppings tell a story?
At the site he observed two types of excrement — fecal and cecal — and signs that helped him determine that birds had been there recently, but probably not to strut. For each site, Christiansen filled out a data sheet with his observations.
The statewide coordinator has been ebullient with this year’s results, although trends remain most important and regular population fluctuations are a characteristic of the long-lived bird. An administrator who won’t leave the field, he apologized at one recent sage grouse mapping meeting for being minutes late. He’d been out counting earlier that morning and had some good news.
He had found 250 strutting male grouse “over double what those same leks were last year,” he said.
How that and other information will be used will first be up to the Wyoming team and Gov. Mead. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service will then likely vet Wyoming’s updated Core-Area Strategy plus revised protections being mulled by six Wyoming BLM districts, two national forests and the Thunder Basin National Grassland. Whether those measures protect core-area populations, even in winter and in the face of energy development, may be paramount.
Uncertainty still looms.
“I’m concerned,” Rutledge said about the NPL winter concentration population. The gas-field conflict “doesn’t make it easy for any of us.” Nevertheless, he’s willing to trust Jonah Energy.
“We expect an absolute minimized footprint and stipulations on activities in winter,” he said. “I have absolute assurance from the company they will minimize the damage they do and minimize the [impact] on the site.”