PINEDALE — An energy company Thursday argued strongly against more state protection for newly documented greater sage grouse winter habitat where a gas field also is planned.
Jonah Energy fought against expanding the state’s core area protection zone to cover a seasonal home to 2,000 greater sage grouse, saying it could cut its development plan by three quarters. But a U.S. Bureau of Land Management biologist underscored the importance of 173,000 acres that could be protected, land that also holds at least 10 breeding leks where up to 206 male sage grouse strut annually.
The conflict played out in front of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team mapping committee Thursday as it met to gather information and public comments. It will consider expanding the core-area protection zone Tuesday in Lander. What emerges from that meeting may influence the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it considers in September whether the greater sage grouse should be listed as a threatened or endangered species.
Jonah’s government affairs director Paul Ulrich made the company’s case for development of the proposed 141,000-acre Normally Pressured Lance field without new restrictions. Expanding Wyoming’s core-area “most certainly fundamentally changes our plan of development,” Ulrich said. “I don’t believe putting this acreage in core is the right decision.”
But the acreage qualifies for core-area protection on a number of levels, a BLM biologist told the group. In addition to being a newly documented winter concentration area for 2,000 greater sage grouse from across Sublette County, the area includes the breeding leks, long a measure of core-area status. There had been as many as 345 strutting male grouse on those leks annually during a population upswing between 2007-2009, according to a Game and Fish spreadsheet.
“There’s nowhere else we know of [that] this many birds [are] wintering consistently over time,” BLM biologist Dale Woolwine told the mapping group. “Two thousand birds – that’s greater than anything that you guys, I’m assuming, have considered in other proposals.”
In a somewhat complex process, the mapping decisions would be adopted or rejected by the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team, then forwarded to Gov. Matt Mead for his action. “The governor is the ultimate decider,” Wyoming Game and Fish Sage Grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen told the mapping group.
State core area key to endangered species listing
The state’s core area is a key factor in an ongoing federal environmental study that would protect grouse habitat in six Wyoming BLM districts, two national forests and the Thunder Basin National Grassland, according to a BLM instructional memo posted by the agency. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in turn, has supported the BLM planning process, even though it said BLM hasn’t selected the strategy that’s best for the greater sage grouse.
“The Service continues to favor the most extensive conservation measures,” the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote BLM on March 27 about BLM’s statewide sage grouse planning. But that’s not the alternative the BLM is considering.
“The Service realizes, however, that the BLM and USFS must balance conservation for greater sage-grouse with their multiple-use objectives for land management,” the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote. Despite the BLM shortcomings, the USFWS “is pleased” the Wyoming core-area strategy is being incorporated into the environmental review, known in shorthand as the Wyoming Nine EIS.
Potential core-area restrictions made Ulrich argue against expanding the area to cover the proposed NPL field. “We’re a small company with one asset — Jonah Field and NPL,” he said in an interview after the mapping meeting. A separate, ongoing BLM environmental review of the proposed NPL field should accommodate the sage grouse and its wintering habitat, Ulrich said.
“We know the birds are there in significant numbers,” he said. “We want adequate and science-based level of protection that’s appropriate,” and that will come as the BLM finalizes Jonah Energy’s development plan for 3,500 wells, he said. Ulrich would not commit to limiting activity during the winter, a strategy industry has opposed in the past.
Johan Energy wants to drill the wells from four well pads per mile-by-mile 640-acre section. But the core-area strategy calls for only one well pad per section.
“An existing lease does not ensure your acreage is not in core area,” Ulrich said. However, Jonah Energy has submitted its development plan and that plan is under environmental review. Those actions should allow the NPL field analysis to take precedence over core-area expansion, he said.
Jonah Energy is a private firm operated by CEO Tom Hart, a Texan who also is a Jonah Energy owner, Ulrich said in an interview. The company bought leases underlying the proposed NPL field understanding they were not in the core area, and it needs to plan long-term for development, Ulrich said.
“If a fundamental change occurs, it throws off the remainder of the [BLM NPL study] process,” he said in an interview. “The BLM would have to take into account the core-area stipulation. We would have to modify our plan of development based on the core-area stipulation.”
Studies now justify core-area expansion
Enough data has been collected to justify core-area expansion into the NPL field, biologist Woolwine and others said. The winter concentration area had been proposed as a core area five years ago — at the time of the last core-area map revision — but rejected for lack of information.
“We didn’t have the breeding habitat, didn’t have the leks,” Woolwine said of the lack of data at the time. “Ten of those 11 [leks] had 20 or more males,” he said. “These leks alone, delineated in any number of ways could merit core protection,” he wrote in a memo to the mapping group. The BLM has made no decision on NPL field development, the memo said. The additional 2,000 sage grouse found in the winter concentration area only adds to the site’s importance, he suggested.
Biologists knew of the wintering habitat 10 years ago but that knowledge has now been backed up with observations, mapping-group member Dennis Jaeger, supervisor of the Thunder Basin National Grassland and Medicine Bow-Routt national forests said. “It was known there was a great wintering resource there,” he said. “There’s been new data.”
The mapping subcommittee Thursday heard all proposals for expanding and contracting the core area from three different local working groups — southwest, upper Green River basin and Snake River basin. The Upper Green River group did not reach a consensus on protections at the proposed NPL field.
“We had a number of biologists speak passionately” in favor of sage grouse, upper Green River working group member Bob Barrett told the mapping panel. “One stakeholder can block the whole discussion. That’s what we’re dealing with here,” he said. An industry representative refused to endorse NPL protection for Barrett’s local working group.
“It’s the deeply flawed nature of the working group process that was on display two weeks ago,” Barrett said, recounting the first NPL debate March 5. “For a lot of professional biologists who sit on this group, it’s very frustrating.”
Not only does industry resist NPL core-area protection, it also is seeking to remove 54,000 acres on the flanks of the Pinedale Anticline gas field from the state protection zone. Operators of the anticline field made the request covering 54,552 acres and five leks with up to 239 strutting males. Although the Upper Green River Local Working Group didn’t endorse the removal, the statewide team will consider it.
On the Pinedale Anticline flanks, protection of wintering sage grouse also is a major worry. “There’s easily 600 of them,” Woolwine said of the wintering concentration. The anticline flanks also hold sites where greater sage grouse have been documented pecking dirt, a little-understood activity known as geophagia.
“There’s three or four of them in that proposed removal area,” Woolwine said of the pecking sites. The numbers he reported come from only half of this winter’s studies, he said. The most recent observations were not completed in time to submit at recent meetings.
The winter concentration areas have been a lurking issue, sage grouse coordinator Christensen told the mapping group. Core areas were drawn based on leks, nesting habitat and other factors, including energy fields. “It’s been a big issue for a long time,” Christiansen said. “It’s not an easy one to address and make everything right for everybody.”
The spelling of Tom Christiansen’s name was corrected in this story — Ed.