To put the issue in perspective, the federal listing of the Northern Spotted Owl affected forests in Oregon, Washington, and northern California. The listing of the Greater Sage-Grouse would affect 165 million acres from California to North Dakota. It’s an area of the West where oil and gas production has doubled since 1990. The Western Energy Alliance calculated that a federal Greater Sage-Grouse listing could cost more than $5 billion in annual economic output.

The fragmentation of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem cost Greater Sage-Grouse dearly. Over the past two centuries, settlement, farming, ranching, mining, sprawling urban development, and fossil-fuel extraction have cut the Sagebrush Steppe almost in half, and sage-grouse numbers have dropped from an estimated 16 million presettlement to a few hundred thousand today. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Greater Sage-Grouse populations have declined by more than 60 percent over the past five decades.

The Greater Sage-Grouse's range has shrunk by about half, and its population has declined by as much as 95%, from pre-settlement estimates as high as 16 million to between 200,000 and 500,000 birds today. (Midpoint of current population estimates depicted above). Figure by Matt Kania, Map Hero.

The Greater Sage-Grouse's range has shrunk by about half, and its population has declined by as much as 95%, from pre-settlement estimates as high as 16 million to between 200,000 and 500,000 birds today. (Midpoint of current population estimates depicted above). Figure by Matt Kania, Map Hero.

An Endangered Species Act listing for Greater Sage-Grouse has been batted back and forth in federal courts since 2006. With uncertainty looming, Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal sought to prevent a federal takeover of his state’s sage-grouse by establishing a policy for the conservation of their core areas in 2008. The core plan was written by a multidisciplinary team made up of elected officials, ranchers, and representatives from county, state, and federal agencies; oil, gas, and mining companies; and conservation groups (including Audubon).

“I’ve never been in a meeting with 30 different people wearing all kinds of different shoes…work boots, hiking boots, high heels…all working together on a collaborative solution,” says Mary Flanderka, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Habitat Protection Supervisor for sage-grouse.

The next Wyoming governor—Matt Mead—followed up with his own revised core area plan in 2011. The plan identified 31 core areas (view map) for Greater Sage-Grouse populations that altogether covered about a quarter of the state’s land area, and included more than 80 percent of the bird’s population in the state. The plan recommends that new energy leasing be done outside of core areas, but still allows leasing and development inside cores. The plan’s regulations mostly focus on new energy development in core areas, the key stipulations being the establishment of a 0.6-mile nosurface- occupancy buffer zone around leks and a 5 percent cap on all surface disturbances with an average density limit of one disturbance per 640 acres (or one well-drilling pad per square mile).

Because it’s an average, that could mean six well pads clustered in one section with no pads in five other surrounding sections. The core plan team set the disturbance density limit based on research that showed it to be the disturbance threshold that sage-grouse will tolerate.

The federal government was impressed with the plan: the USFWS issued a statement praising it as “an excellent model for meaningful conservation of sage-grouse.” The Bureau of Land Management (the biggest landowner in the West) used the state core plan as a blueprint for crafting their first regional management plan for sage-grouse on federal lands, issued out of the Lander, Wyoming, office.