Wyoming Case Study: Respite From Industry Helps Grouse Populations

Moratorium on Industrial Projects Helpful, Planned Protections Prove Inadequate

LARAMIE, Wyo. – A case study released today by WildEarth Guardians provides new insights on federal and state sage grouse policies and how they may have affected sage grouse population declines and rebounds since 2007. The examination of federal project approvals across Wyoming reveals that only 0.8% of oil and gas wells (totaling 223 wells) proposed in projects that intersect sage grouse Core Areas, priority habitats designated for stronger grouse protections, were approved under the Obama administration, while 27,203 wells are part of projects involving sage grouse Core Areas that agencies placed on hold while federal sage grouse plans protections were being updated.
 
“For the past six years, federal agencies worked under an almost total moratorium on new industrial projects in sage grouse priority habitats,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “This respite from industrial destruction appears to be the single most important factor in allowing imperiled sage populations to rebound. When weather conditions are favorable, sage grouse numbers can recover if they have undeveloped habitat.”
 
Since 2007 federal agencies approved only one major industrial project, the Lost Creek in situ uranium mine, inside a Core Area under new state and federal sage grouse mandates. Based on newly released state population data, local sage grouse populations plummeted since construction began at the mine in 2012.
 
At Lost Creek, State officials granted exceptions to a key requirement that was supposed to keep haul roads at least 1.9 miles from active sage grouse breeding areas, called leks, and as a result the haul roads were built too close and grouse populations plummeted.
 
“The Wyoming Game and Fish Department went on record promising no population declines would result from allowing roads to be built too close to key grouse mating areas,” said Molvar. “Unsurprisingly, they were wrong and now these grouse populations are headed for extirpation.” Sage grouse leks close to the mine site but farther from haul roads also declined, perhaps due to the high concentration of habitat disturbance allowed in Core Areas under state and federal plans. “This sorry episode demonstrates why sage grouse protections must be mandatory and not subject to waiver,” Molvar added.
 
While state and federal protections failed to adequately limit the impacts of the one mineral project that was approved in Core Area habitats, stronger protections from wind energy development resulted in successful relocation of wind farms to less sensitive areas in several cases. State policies played the primary role in these successes. In one case, however, the State of Wyoming relocated Core Area boundaries to allow the Anschutz Corporation to build a thousand-turbine wind farm known as Chokecherry-Sierra Madre on lands originally designated as Core Areas for sage grouse protection. Construction has yet to begin, so impacts on sage grouse populations remain to be seen.
 
When the current federal land use plan revision process is concluded, the near-total moratorium on fossil fuel development in grouse Core Areas will likely be lifted. The current drafts of the plans are far less protective than the moratorium. Thus, renewed industrial development in key sage grouse habitat may soon reverse the documented rebounds in grouse populations in Core Areas that were protected from destructive development for the past eight years.
 
“The single most effective conservation measure for sage grouse in Wyoming is keeping industrial uses out of Core Area habitats,” Molvar said. “The recent grouse population rebound will be erased quickly if the new federal protections aren’t a lot stronger than those applied at the Lost Creek mine site.”


 

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