Wyoming plan the Achilles' heel of federal sage grouse effort
Fossil fuels remain a threat to declining grouse population
LARAMIE, Wyo. – New plans intended to rescue the sage grouse from the brink of extinction will open the door for a flood of oil and gas fracking, mining, and loosely-managed livestock grazing across the most sensitive sage grouse habitats that remain in Wyoming. Although aiming to protect and restore this iconic bird and its sagebrush habitat, the proposed Wyoming plans stand in stark contrast to corresponding plans in states like Colorado and Nevada, which require that federal agencies shift industrial use outside of priority habitats for sage grouse.
“Secretary Jewell came out to a part of Wyoming where sage grouse have been extinct for decades, to circle her wagons around a crippled Wyoming plan,” said Erik Molvar, Wyoming-based wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The Wyoming federal plans adopt all the failures of the state plan to follow the science, and even these weak protections are optional.”
In a population persistence study released this March, Wyoming populations declined more steeply than any other major sage grouse state. Populations in the Powder River Basin, a key linkage connecting sage grouse in Montana and the Dakotas to the rest of the sage grouse range, having a 98% probability of falling into an extinction vortex in 30 years.
“Given the huge threats from drilling, the importance of Wyoming’s sage grouse populations as the most abundant remaining in the nation, and the serious downward trend of Wyoming populations, this sage grouse stronghold is the last place that federal agencies should botch a sage grouse conservation plan.”
Sage grouse plans in Colorado and Nevada allow future oil and gas leasing in sage grouse priority habitats only under ‘No Surface Occupancy’ without exception either throughout Priority Habitats or within 3.1 miles of sage grouse leks, or breeding and dancing grounds. In Wyoming, priority habitats are open to future leasing for coal, oil and gas under scientifically discredited sage grouse protections with a scientifically discredited 0.6-mile lek buffer, and even these weak protections are optional, subject to waiver, modifications, and exceptions.
For approximately 3 million acres of existing leases inside sage grouse priority habitats, no binding sage grouse protections would apply. In priority habitats, No Surface Occupancy buffers are set at only 0.6 miles from leks, protecting only 2 percent of the sensitive nesting habitat within 4 miles of leks. Wyoming studies have demonstrated significant population declines when oil and gas wells are sited this close to leks. While other states apply a limit of 3% surface disturbance in key habitats in accordance with scientific recommendations, in Wyoming the limit is almost double that at 5%, which is not supported by a single scientific study.
“The Wyoming plans are clearly the weak link in the Interior Department’s sage grouse conservation effort,” said Molvar. “This abject failure to follow the science in Wyoming will undermine efforts to avert the need for the Endangered Species Act.”
In Wyoming, more than 3.8 million acres of oil and gas leases have been pulled from the auction block over the past 6 years, and oil and gas projects totaling more than 27,000 wells wait in the wings for the completion of the sage grouse plan amendments.
“Wyoming’s steep population decline since 2007 has occurred largely during a time when oil and gas leasing and drilling have been at a standstill in priority grouse habitats,” Molvar observed. “If this sage grouse plan goes through as proposed, the floodgates will open, leading to further massive declines as the fossil fuels industry pushes bulldozers, drilling rigs, and strip mining draglines into the last remnants of prime grouse habitat.”