Wyoming’s sage grouse “core area” designation and conservation measures will not be applied to critical winter habitat inside a proposed gas field in western Wyoming.
Instead, the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team will develop a special set of stipulations for two areas inside Jonah Energy’s Normally Pressured Lance gas field, where 1,500 to 2,000 of the chicken-sized birds concentrate during winter months.
Those winter range protections in the NPL gas field will guide how the state manages for sage grouse winter concentration areas both inside and outside the state’s 31 special-designated core areas, according to Bob Budd, SGIT leader.
“We’re going to develop winter management standards and protocols and stipulations, based on the science, and that will be applied both inside and outside core as we identify [winter concentration areas],” Budd told WyoFile.
The SGIT will carefully scrutinize measures the U.S. Bureau of Land Management sets forth to protect the winter concentration areas in NPL, where it is conducting an Environmental Impact Statement for Jonah Energy’s proposed 3,500-well development plan. Budd said the state has assurances from Jonah Energy that it will not move forward with development until the state has had a chance to review and sign off on the BLM’s NPL management plan.
The SGIT expects to propose its guidelines for managing winter concentration areas well before the federal EIS is complete.
“In the winter concentration area, [Jonah Energy will not] do any development, until the EIS is done, until the state has had a chance to weigh in on the EIS and say we think it’s right or wrong or did they properly analyze the winter issue. We’re very serious about that,” Budd said.
The full SGIT team settled its recommended approach to NPL and future designated sage grouse winter concentration areas during its meeting last week in Douglas. The team will meet once more before it finalizes its review of the sage grouse core areas program and submits proposed changes to Gov. Matt Mead by the end of May.
Gov. Mead has until the end of the month to issue an amended executive order that will continue the core area program and provide state agencies authority to implement it. SGIT’s meeting for its final review will be May 27 in Cheyenne, and Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell may attend a reception for the program’s renewal on May 28, Budd said.
The Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to issue its determination in September on whether the greater sage grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, although a congressional rider passed in December prohibits the agency from applying ESA protections for the bird.
Because it is home to 38.8 percent of the species’ remaining population across 11 western states, Wyoming and Gov. Mead’s core areas program are expected to play prominently in the federal government’s threatened or endangered determination.
Core area updates
Last week in Douglas, the SGIT reviewed approximately 26 core area changes based on recommendations from its mapping committee, and accepted 11 of the changes, according to Budd. Nine of the changes added to Wyoming’s sage grouse core areas, and two were to subtract. Budd estimated the changes might add approximately 1,000 to 1,200 sage grouse to the number of birds already protected by core area rules under the present executive order.
The SGIT will consider about two dozen more core area mapping changes when it meets May 27 in Cheyenne.
Among the core area additions accepted by SGIT last week was approximately 24,000 acres to the Rawlins Core Area in south-central Wyoming. It’s part of a deal struck between the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Colorado-based GRMR Oil & Gas, which agreed to abide by core area protections when feasible. When not feasible it will develop a mitigation plan with state wildlife managers.
Wyoming Game & Fish biologist Tony Mong said he believes the agreement between the department and GRMR should help demonstrate to the federal Fish & Wildlife Service Wyoming’s ability to protect greater sage grouse in the face of energy development.
The GRMR deal includes removing two smaller areas from the Rawlins Core Area, which already included some oil and gas development. It’s estimated the deal overall may add more than 400 birds to a greater sage grouse population with important genetic ties to populations just across the border in Colorado.
Winter concentration areas
Wildlife biologists have recommended protecting 60,000 acres of high plains sagebrush habitat in the Upper Green River Basin where up to 2,000 greater sage grouse gather to survive the winter. About half of the “winter concentration area” is BLM land in the 141,000-acre NPL gas field targeted for 3,500 wells.
Core area protection requires that all disturbance — including areas previously disturbed by other operations — can amount to no more than 5 percent of the surface. The protections also require that only one oil and gas well be drilled per 640 acres (though more than one well can be drilled horizontally or directionally from one well pad).
Jonah Energy officials have said that if Wyoming’s core area protections were applied to the winter concentration area in NPL, it would render its development plan uneconomic.
Yet state officials understand the NPL winter concentration area is unique in size, and that it may be critical to the survival of sage grouse in nearby protected core areas in the Upper Green River basin. The region is considered the sweet spot of Wyoming’s greater sage grouse range, while Wyoming itself is considered ground-zero for survival of the species across the West.
Despite recommendations by wildlife biologists, and a 6-4 vote by the SGIT mapping group in favor for core area protection, the NPL winter concentration area will not fall under core area boundaries. SGIT leaders say that’s because Wyoming’s core area program is centered on protecting leks — sagebrush habitats where the sage grouse gather to mate in the spring — rather than habitats where they concentrate during winter months.
“Throwing core area over winter concentrations is kind of like mixing apples and oranges,” said SGIT member Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs).
SGIT leader Bob Budd said the group will organize a subcommittee to come up with a set of rules specific to protecting sage grouse WCAs. Those stipulations will likely differ from those applied to designated “core areas,” and could include seasonal restrictions, no surface occupancy, and corridors connecting WCAs to core areas where birds likely spend most of the year.
The protections will apply to designated winter concentration areas, whether inside or outside core areas. Designation of a WCA outside of core may depend on the WCA’s contribution to nearby core area populations, according to SGIT members.
The state’s authority to impose restrictions in non-core area WCAs will come from the same executive order that guides the core areas program, said Budd.
“The recommendation to the governor is we will protect winter populations, and that’s in the executive order. So whatever that takes, obviously, we are going to do it.”
SGIT members expect that biologists and local sage grouse working groups will likely identify many more winter concentration areas in coming years.
Longtime critic of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Core Areas program Doug Cooper listed several objections before SGIT members during the meeting last week in Douglas. He noted there is no public comment period set at the completion of SGIT’s recommendations to Gov. Mead. A provision to extend review of the executive order to seven years could hamstring some future single-term governor, he said.
Cooper, a rancher in northern Natrona County, continued to assert that the governor’s sage grouse core areas executive order has no authority over private property. Yet the state’s collaboration with energy interests has resulted in carving out areas, he argued. The practice resulted in shifting core area over his property where he was closing a deal with a wind company, Cooper said. Now his neighbors are in the wind business and he is not.
Cooper reiterated his view that the state lacks proper authority to have that kind of influence over private property. Gov. Mead’s policy advisor Jerimiah Rieman challenged Cooper as he stood at the podium demanding he prove the state is acting where it doesn’t have authority.
Cooper later told WyoFile he believes the executive order should be replaced with a statute to establish the sage grouse core area program under law. “These guys are exempt from the Administrative Procedure Act. They can have a 2-day comment period. Last night they [SGIT members] were voting holding their thumbs up so that everyone sitting here could only see the people voting on the edges. I’ve never seen anything done like that.”
Rieman also cross-examined WildEarth Guardians biologist Erik Molvar as he addressed SGIT members during public comment.
Budd said such interaction between SGIT and members of the public is not uncommon. He said SGIT doesn’t follow the Administrative Procedures Act because it would stifle the type of conversational collaboration and consensus building the organization seeks.
“You have to remember that of most of the people who come to the meetings have a history of working on this, so there’s a familiarity,” Budd told WyoFile.
In his comments to SGIT last week, Molvar said a serious flaw in Wyoming’s sage grouse core areas program is “it was promulgated on collaborative consensus building among a variety of interests.”
“Should the governor have put it before a committee of scientists? Well, probably,” Molvar told Reiman. “But the governor gave it to a collaborative group of stakeholders, and you know you’re going to get political compromise if you have that.”
— This story was updated on May 13, 2015 to describe the federal government’s pending ESA determination, and to correct the 6-4 vote by the SGIT mapping group. — Ed