(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a five-part series examining the conclusions in the Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental impact statement regarding the proposed development of 5,000 oil and gas wells in Converse County during the next 10 years. The BLM hopes to have a final EIS released soon and the final record of decision issued by year’s end. The draft EIS lists the preferred alternative as full development, which is alternative B.)

They’re stocky dancers. Every male displays a dapper yellow teardrop above each eye, and sports mottled gray-brown back feathers that change to pitch-black on his stomach. They hold their spiky tail feathers fanned behind them like working class peacocks, strutting about to impress the drab hens. Every few moments one of these feisty males violently thrusts his bouncy, ochre air sacs away from his white chest, emitting a series of whooshes and pops that sound like the ambient noises on the bridge of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise. The birds fight viciously, jostling for position in the open sagebrush like armless men wrestling. A dozen or so males will display at this courtship area, known as a lek, every day between March and May; one or two of them will mate with all of the females.

That elaborate annual ritual of the greater sage-grouse lek could disappear from Converse County if the BLM isn’t careful in how it allows the drilling of 5,000 wells over the next 10 years.

This bird alone could put the brakes on the oil and gas play at the center of the environmental impact statement.

SAGE-GROUSE IN WYOMING

If the greater sage-grouse becomes an endangered species, the bird’s conservation will become a federal concern, handled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As long as the sage-grouse is classified as near-threatened, operators and governments can collaborate and work around the bird. However, the species toes the line between classifications, giving operators fits and putting government agencies in tough spots. At the state level, Wyoming lawmakers and industry executives alike know that if the bird becomes listed, revenues from oil and gas development could fall dramatically.

Beyond the financial implications tied to the bird’s fate, the sage-grouse is a seminal species ecologically (an indicator of the health of an ecosystem) and an emblematic species historically.

“The species is often referred to as an icon of the American West, along with cowboys, I suppose,” said Dr. Jack Connelly, one of the world’s leading sage-grouse experts. “They signify the American West and the sagebrush plains.”

As development expands across the sage-grouse’s range, the bird’s future becomes increasingly uncertain.

“The situation is just getting more and more dire for sage-grouse,” Connelly said.

Wyoming is home to 40 percent of the world’s sage-grouse and is central to conservation efforts throughout the bird’s range. Converse County doesn’t lead the Cowboy State in sage-grouse numbers, but the birds that do live here could be in trouble, with the county expecting an additional 3.5 percent of its undisturbed surface to become home to new oil and gas wells.

A group of energy-producing companies has proposed drilling up to 5,000 new oil and gas wells in the county over the next 10 years. The BLM, in its environmental impact statement on the proposal, has selected most of the plan laid out by those companies as its preferred alternative for development.

Connelly, a former Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist, said the Converse County EIS is part of a general, country-wide chipping away of sage-grouse habitat.

“The ways these guys play this game is they keep saying, ‘Oh, this is just a few thousand acres right here,’” he explained. “The problem is that they all add up. They’re trying to make the argument that this is one little disturbance, or one little chunk. This is going on everywhere.”

He also said that the BLM’s policies are retreating from past policies aimed at protecting the bird.

“They’re all backing away from the original sage-grouse plans,” he said. “They are almost totally ignoring the science that we have.”

MEAD’S EXECUTIVE ORDER

In order to reduce the likelihood of a sage-grouse listing, Gov. Matt Mead issued an executive order. The order, developed with extensive industry participation, outlines industry and conservation guidelines for working in sage-grouse habitat. Part of the executive order describes the parameters within which companies can apply for drilling exemptions for seasonal restrictions and in core habitat areas.

The executive order prioritizes core area sagebrush lands where sage-grouse establish leks and breed. Without these areas, the birds cannot reproduce. Across the sage-grouse’s range, breeding grounds and general habitat are in decline, and the species-wide population has tumbled since the 1960s; there were twice as many sage-grouse 50 years ago as there are today.

Dealing with core areas poses unique challenges for government officials and operators. Sage-grouse are notoriously picky in selecting lek sites and are highly sensitive to human disturbances. Loud noises near leks can prevent the birds from breeding, and too much disruption can drive the birds from a given patch of habitat. Scientists say if the BLM isn’t careful, Converse County’s sage-grouse could be extirpated -– removed from the county entirely.

To prevent the sensitive and selective sage-grouse from abandoning lek sites in core areas, the executive order relies on a density disturbance calculation: development in core areas cannot exceed 5 percent surface disturbance and only one mining site is allowed per 640 acres of core area. This helps create buffer zones and prevents drilling from bothering sage-grouse without precluding the possibility of development. Converse County has five core areas, only one of which could see new development according to the EIS.

YEAR-ROUND DRILLING

Year-round drilling has been a contentious topic between ornithologists and industry operators. Timing stipulations exist so that many bird species – not only sage-grouse – can breed and raise their young without disturbance from ongoing development. But moving off-site and halting development for these stipulations costs operators money, and, they argue, cause more disturbance than if rigs were allowed to remain operational.

The Converse County Commissioners said they believe the shutdown stipulations also hurt the local economy.

“We have argued, having those rigs and those people be more stable is better for the socioeconomics of our community,” said Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department implements the executive order by inspecting the site for a proposed drilling exemption, then offering the BLM a recommendation based on whether that exemption could harm sage-grouse. The department is not a permitting agency, and the BLM is not required to heed its recommendations on exemption requests.

“The seasonal (stipulation) exemptions in core areas are few and far between,” said Amanda Withroder, a Game and Fish biologist, explaining that industry has not asked for many.

Connelly, who retired a few years ago from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, fears that making the year-round drilling process easier for operators could be a slippery slope.

“It’s kind of like letting the camel’s nose into the tent,” he said. “Pretty quick you’re going to have the whole camel.”

He said that the sage-grouse’s current situation won’t improve by allowing more year-round drilling, which could be a result of the final EIS.

“The approach that they really need is to basically protect what we have left,” Connelly explained. “Instead of following that simple philosophy, the approach seems to be ‘Let’s eat around the edges and get a few exemptions going.’”

Marel Bunker, a lawyer for the W.I. Moore Ranch in Converse County, says that if the BLM selects its preferred alternative B in the final EIS, the agency will likely be sued over a lack of protections for the sage-grouse. At the same time, she doesn’t expect the BLM to approve industry’s request for year-round drilling.

“I would be shocked,” she said, “because the sage-grouse has been such a big deal, and (the BLM) is basically wanting to completely throw (the current policy) out the window and say it doesn’t matter.”

SAGE-GROUSE CONCERNS

Gov. Mead commented on the EIS and warned the BLM that a lack of compliance with his executive order could lead to severe problems for the state.

“Any significant deviations from these plans (the executive order) will serve as the gravamen of any future attempts to list the bird,” Mead said.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department commented on the EIS and expressed concerns that overall wildlife carrying capacity will decline in the county as a result of the project. The department commented that the BLM’s analysis of sage-grouse in Converse County was less than stellar.

Withroder believes it is difficult to know how the BLM’s preferred alternative would affect Converse County sage-grouse populations because the EIS assumed that drilling would be evenly distributed across the landscape, which would be a highly unlikely pattern of development.

In its comments, the Game and Fish Department also drew attention to the fact that Converse County will see new wind farm developments in addition to oil and gas drilling, and development of new sand and gravel pits could cause losses in deer and pronghorn habitat. Ungulate species will face challenges in the face of increased development (losing about 40,000 acres of habitat in Converse County) but tend to be in better shape than the sage-grouse.

OIL/GAS AND SAGE-GROUSE

Sage-grouse don’t enjoy sharing land with humans or industrial activity. Dr. Matt Holloran, a wildlife biologist and one of Wyoming’s foremost sage-grouse experts, has found in his research that sage-grouse stay away from areas with high truck traffic.

Holloran explained that as development encroaches on sage-grouse core and non-core habitat, negative impacts on sage-grouse increase. More wells on the landscape lead to greater impacts to the birds.

“Generally, what happens is you’ll see those birds move away pretty quickly,” Holloran said about the bird’s timidness and noise aversion. “We don’t know exactly the mechanism – it seems like it’s both the birds dying and the birds moving – but the movement is not what you would think. It’s not an individual bird getting up and moving away; it’s her chicks getting up and moving away. So you almost see this generational avoidance.”

That leads to lag effects, which make it difficult to estimate sage-grouse populations on an annual basis.

“It takes 4 to 5 years for you to start to see an impact of gas development on sage-grouse populations,” Holloran said.

Under Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the Department of the Interior has amended its sage-grouse approach, switching to a population-based strategy that has been widely criticized by sage-grouse experts.

Female sage-grouse live about 10 years, so it takes time to see how development affects hens’ progeny. The same lag can be seen when looking at reclaimed areas; it takes time before they have a chance to be repopulated.

THE LANDSCAPE SCALE

Holloran said Wyoming’s approach to aid the sage-grouse is “way in the forefront,” in terms of sage-grouse protection efforts throughout the West. Connelly described Mead’s executive order as a “fairly reasonable approach.”

However, one shortcoming in the executive order is it focuses on impacts on a well-by-well basis, rather than considering the cumulative effect at the landscape scale, he argued. Maintaining the integrity of sage-grouse habitat across the bird’s range is critical. It could be possible to follow the executive order on a well-by-well basis and still lose the integrity of core area across the state.

“Each core area in the state of Wyoming is not necessarily a stand-alone chunk of habitat,” Holloran said. “It requires connectivity among those other core areas . . . it would be pretty easy to throw a well in a critical connectivity corridor and not recognize that it’s there, even though you fully mitigated at the site scale.”

The executive order puts most of its focus on core areas, without paying much attention to the preservation of the general habitat that sage-grouse use outside of the breeding season.

Willow Bish, a Game and Fish Department biologist in Converse County who monitors the county’s sage-grouse populations, agreed that the current approach entails investing heavily in one facet of sage-grouse conservation.

Holloran believes there are drawbacks to focusing so heavily on core areas without also making efforts to protect non-core habitat. Under Ryan Zinke’s leadership, the BLM has proposed Land Use Plans that reduce or eliminate the protection of non-core areas.

“I really don’t like that the federal government, in Wyoming, put some restrictions on (protecting) non-core habitat,” Holloran said. “Our whole approach is to manage core, and the feds came in and put some restrictions outside of core. So they’re working to make it easier to get around those restrictions with these amendments.”

CONVERSE EXTIRPATION?

Holloran is optimistic about the sage-grouse’s future, but hopes that the BLM will consider how to implement the EIS with great care. Converse County’s birds are vulnerable.

“The way that that area is developed, we really have to think our way through it, spatially and temporally,” Holloran said. “Because there is the real possibility if you move those birds out for 20 years that’s enough time where they won’t stay. That’s enough time to extirpate a population of birds. And I think that is a very real concern in that area.”

Holloran expressed concerns over recent changes at the federal level that weaken sage-grouse protections.

“In my opinion they’re jumping the gun,” he said. “They’re not even giving it (the current strategies) a chance, in my opinion.

“I think that the plans . . . were put in place with the idea that we move forward with these approaches,” he said. “By not taking the best available science that was used to develop those plans, and not allowing that process to mature, and working in a truly adaptive way to make changes, I think is a mistake.”

Connelly expressed the same sentiment: that the federal government seems to be giving up on the methods without having tried them fully.

“None of these strategies are perfect, but we don’t want to sacrifice the good in search of the perfect,” he said.

Overall, Connelly hasn’t been encouraged by the BLM’s recent work.

“If I were rating the BLM on sage-grouse conservation five years ago I would’ve given them a B-minus, and now I’d say I’d give them a C-minus,” he said. “I don’t think they’re improving.”

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