Sage grouse on the edge of functional extinction in northeast Wyoming
The greater sage grouse — the West’s best metric for the health of the western prairie ecosystem — is teetering on the edge of an Endangered Species Act listing. Yet just one nasty wildfire in the wrong place, or one more major outbreak of the West Nile Virus, and the greater sage grouse may become functionally extinct in the Powder River Basin, erasing a critical lifeline for genetic diversification between other sage grouse populations in Wyoming and Montana, according to wildlife biologists.
It’s a volatile situation, especially as conditions align for a potentially troublesome fire and mosquito season.
“If certain things happen, we will need to get on it immediately. If we have a fire, we’ll have to work on rehabbing that very, very quickly,” said BLM Buffalo field office manager Duane Spencer.
The sage grouse population here in northeast Wyoming has been slashed more than 82 percent since 2001 due to intense coal-bed methane gas development (more than 30,000 wells drilled over a short period of time, along with thousands of newly constructed produced-water impoundments, thousands of miles of new roads and power lines), as well as a handful of West Nile Virus outbreaks. According to a new study commissioned by BLM’s Buffalo field office, “Viability Analysis for Conservation of Sage-Grouse Populations,” the sage grouse will never fully recover in the Powder River Basin.
Instead, land and wildlife managers want to at least preserve the surviving population as a genetic lifeline to the broader range of the species in Wyoming and Montana. And to achieve even that, “We’re going to have to restore the basin at the scale we drilled it,” says David Naugle, professor of wildlife biology at the University of Montana and co-author of the study.
That scale of gas-field restoration — reseeding well pads, taking out roads, wastewater ponds and power lines — has never happened in Wyoming. But federal and state officials will likely narrow their focus on areas of sage grouse “connectivity” in the region.
In addition to the potential for wildfire and West Nile Virus, there are other major forces that may work against preserving the sage grouse through gas-field restoration. Approximately 9,000 coal-bed methane gas wells have been left idle due to low natural gas prices while a growing number of operators face bankruptcy. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is currently working with about a half-dozen operators who cannot pay for required mechanical integrity testing of idle wells (a potential human health and fire hazard). Nor can they afford to post additional bonds required to cover the cost of decommissioning and reclamation.
There’s also pressure to keep some of the gas-field infrastructure in place for so-called “methane farming” (stimulating the microbial production of methane in the coal). New rural housing developments have also piggybacked on the industry’s new infrastructure — particularly where drilling occurred on the outskirts of Gillette, Buffalo and Sheridan. Many ranchers, understandably, want to keep electrical lines, roads and watering ponds that came with coal-bed methane development.
All of these factors paint a grim scene for a sage grouse population in a state that has won accolades for its “core areas” sage grouse habitat preservation strategy now being adapted across much of the West to avoid a listing of the bird under the ESA. The core areas strategy, which imposes strict limitations on activities known to degrade sage grouse habitat, was first implemented in 2008. And in the Powder River Basin the core area designations were drawn much smaller than if they had been drawn to protect prime sage grouse habitat at the onset of coal-bed methane drilling.
“Notably, core areas in northeast Wyoming were delineated after widespread development had already occurred, leaving few options for conserving populations,” according to the Viability Analyses for Conservation of Sage-Grouse Populations study. “Our findings do not negate the benefits of core areas, in general. However, to achieve maximum effectiveness, core areas must be constructed proactively by conserving high quality habitat, not reactively by drawing borders around planned and existing development.”
It is too late for the sage grouse in the Powder River Basin, said Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. However, he said, “This should not be looked at as, ‘Uh-oh, this is what’s going to happen in the rest of Wyoming.’ Because we did get it (core areas strategy) implemented in time for the rest of Wyoming.”
Christiansen noted that 83 percent of Wyoming’s sage grouse now reside within the protected core areas, while only 4 percent of active operating oil and gas wells remain inside core areas.
But it’s not that the devastating impact of boom-style development on the sage grouse here was unforeseen. A passage in the 2003 Powder River Basin Oil and Gas Environmental Impact Statement reads, “Sage grouse habitats would not be restored to pre-disturbance for an extended period because of the time needed to develop sagebrush stands with characteristics that are preferred by sage grouse.”
Christiansen said that back in 2003 it was the “professional opinion” among wildlife biologists that the proposed development (39,000 wells over 20 years) would greatly exacerbate pressures on sage grouse in the basin. But there were no scientific field studies at the time to parlay into more stringent protections.
“We couldn’t point to anything. It was just professional opinion. That and five bucks will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks,” said Christiansen.
Since, numerous scientific studies have documented the pressures of oil and gas development on sage grouse in Wyoming — as well as other species. But the fact remains; the oil and gas industry, and agencies charged with protecting our public natural resources, sacrificed the Powder River Basin sage grouse population in exchange for full-scale, git-er-done style development while harrumphing early calls to require more bonding for reclamation.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a local landowner advocacy group, issued a press statement last week responding to the BLM’s new study and lamenting ignored calls for better bonding requirements and resource planning at the onset of the coal-bed methane boom. “We encourage land managers in other states and in other areas of Wyoming to heed the findings of this study and to do it right and do it better while there is still a chance to preserve critical habitat for the sage grouse and other species,” said Bob LeResche, wildlife biologist and PRBRC board member.
Spencer said his agency and local fire crews are on high alert to quickly snuff out wildfires in identified sage grouse “connectivity” areas. Spencer told WyoFile his agency is just now getting started on forming a coalition of stakeholders to embark on a gas-field restoration strategy. The Buffalo field office just hired two full-time professionals to drive the effort. However, the larger effort will require landowner cooperation and “pooling” funds from a wide variety of sources; state and federal agencies, local conservation districts, industry and others, according to Spencer.
The question is, does BLM and Wyoming have the same level of enthusiasm to mobilize a large restoration effort as it had for mobilizing the coal-bed methane drilling boom? In 2005, BLM headquarters in Washington D.C. sent marching orders to the BLM Buffalo field office mandating a coal-bed methane well permit approval rate of no less than 3,000 wells annually — knowing full well the rate of development would severely diminish the Powder River Basin sage grouse population. Even after the impacts on sage grouse were scientifically measured, the BLM Buffalo field office continued approving coal-bed methane gas projects in prime habitat, successfully (legally) arguing that the range-wide viability of the population would remain intact.
Can we actually trust that the “drill, baby, drill” attitude that created this problem in the Powder River Basin will be replaced with “reclaim, baby, reclaim”? Experts close to the issue doubt that the plight of the Powder River Basin sage grouse population will be a tipping point in an ESA listing decision. But let it never be said that balance was achieved here in northeast Wyoming when it comes to energy, wildlife and private property rights.
Believe it when Gov. Matt Mead says he will not guarantee Pinedale area residents winters free of dangerous ozone spikes related to natural gas development. State and industry officials increasingly promise to disclose impacts of development, not to fully avoid them.
For more information on efforts to preserve sage grouse, check out these resources:
— Sage Grouse Initiative conservation easements video
Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or [email protected].
If you enjoyed this column and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.