Greater Sage-Grouse are a bit like land mines; they don’t explode into the sky until you’re just about right on top of them. In late January, a flock huddled deep among clumps of frosted sagebrush and freshly fallen snow at the bottom of a draw, waiting until the last possible moment before a pickup truck driving along the BLM access road set them off.
Whoosh!—a cloud of snow crystals sparkled in the cold air as a flock of more than 100 sage-grouse jetted off into the distance. Local BLM biologists say these sage-grouse migrate down from the higher elevations where the snow gets deep. They come from 30 to 60 miles away to nibble on the exposed sagebrush leaves that stick above the windswept snow, and to eat the alkaline dirt.
But this wintering area on federal land is not protected by the core plan. It’s leased for energy development, and an energy company has proposed to drill 3,500 gas wells in the area. BLM biologists are trying to get it protected. They say more than 1,000 sage-grouse gather here in winter. Wyoming’s core plan instructs that “All efforts should be made to minimize disturbance to mature sagebrush cover in identified winter concentration areas.” In April, the Casper Star Tribune newspaper reported that the energy company has halted plans for exploratory development of the area until federal and state agencies have completed reviews of the project and its potential impact on sage-grouse. Ultimately, Governor Matt Mead will decide on whether to protect this area under the core plan.
Inadequate protection of wintering areas is one of a litany of criticisms lobbed by some conservation groups at the state core plan and first BLM regional plan. Last summer, a coalition of six groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and the American Bird Conservancy issued a scorecard that gave the first BLM regional plan a failing grade.
The criticisms began by saying that no oil or gas leasing should be allowed in core areas and then picked point-by-point through the regulations—saying that the 0.6-mile buffer around leks should be a bigger 4-mile buffer, and the 5 percent density disturbance cap should be a lower 3 percent cap. In all, the scorecard failed the BLM’s Lander plan on 24 of 32 points, with each failing point documented by cited scientific research.
“The first [BLM] plan, the Lander plan…fell significantly short in not following the best available science,” says Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for the American Bird Conservancy. He says that although the coalition behind the core plan is admirable, the plan continues to allow too much energy development in grouse habitats.
“Our concern is [the downward] trajectory of sage-grouse [populations]. It’s also important to recognize that grouse protection got delayed for political reasons for over a decade,” Holmer says, citing the back and forth in the federal courts. The delays continue today, as a rider attached to the 2015 federal budget bill issued a one-year ban on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service actually listing sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act, though Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has said the agency will still make a decision this September on whether a listing is warranted.
“We’re basically way behind the curve,” Holmer says. “If we had started all [these conservation efforts] a decade ago, we might be in good shape, but I cannot honestly say we’re in good shape right now.”
Tom Christiansen, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s top sage-grouse biologist, says the core plan is a huge step forward in sage-grouse conservation. He says the finer scale criticisms don’t take into account the broader protections offered within core areas. For example, he says the focus on singular points such as a 0.6-mile buffer miss what’s being regulated in the broader core area: “The problem with some of this criticism is that they’ll say, ‘the science says [the buffer] should be 3 or 4 miles.’
Well, yeah, if it’s in a vacuum.”
Christiansen says a 3-mile buffer might be a good alternative if there weren’t already a protected core area with a 5-mile radius, a smaller buffer around the lek itself, and limits on well density and total surface disturbance throughout the core area. But, he says, the total package of core protection is greater.
“If you had all the core area protections plus a 3-mile buffer would that be better? Sure, but you have got to look at the goal,”he says. “Is the goal to have the absolute best for sage-grouse and forget everything else, human use, the economy? [Wyoming’s] goal is to have sustainable sage-grouse populations that aren’t threatened and will be here for the long term, and we want to have an economy and all those other things.”
Brian Rutledge is the vice president of Audubon Rockies, and he's been working on sage-grouse issues in the West for more than a decade. He was part of the team that developed the Wyoming core area plan, and yet he had criticisms—namely, that there aren’t any reserves set aside for Greater Sage-Grouse.
“It’s going to be really difficult to do now because we bought into the program,” Rutledge says about reserves in Wyoming. And yet, he’s confident that the entire package in the plan was the best deal possible for sage-grouse.
The core plan “protects 15 million acres of Wyoming from anything greater than 5 percent development. Look at the Jonah Field versus what we’re doing now,” Rutledge says, referring to one of the famous first mega gas fields of the modern boom. At Jonah, the density of wells reached 16 pads per square mile. “We reduced impact to 1 pad per square mile. We protected core areas in Wyoming with a 5.3-mile radius, and the science says that gets us 93 percent of the hens.”
Rutledge points out that Wyoming’s core plan created the momentum for a wave of other sage-grouse conservation plans throughout the West, and in every case, oil and gas companies and ranchers are at the negotiating table.
“Without corporate buy-in, we’re not going to have conservation,” Rutledge says.
Christiansen says that the fact that oil and gas companies bought in to the core plan in Wyoming made it politically possible: “I’d rather have buy-in of something that’s good and that results in long-term success than dictate perfection but never actually achieve it.”
Holly Copeland, a landscape ecologist at The Nature Conservancy’s Wyoming office, authored a research paper evaluating the potential effectiveness of the core plan. Her modeling predicts the plan will significantly stem the loss of sage-grouse populations, though she’s not sure if it will be enough to stop a continued long-term decline.
Copeland says the effectiveness of the plan depends on how it is put into practice. She says energy development could be placed in a way that is more favorable to grouse, or less. “There’s squishiness in the siting,” she says.
“At least there’s a watchdog that can look over proposals,” Copeland says, referring to the multidisciplinary team that wrote and is still involved in the core plan. “We’ve got the checks and balances in place, now it’s just a matter of making sure the plan is being carried out faithfully.”