Squaring sage grouse with drilling poses feds’ toughest test

By Phil Taylor | 06/01/2015 01:15 PM EDT

JONAH GAS FIELD, Wyo. — The sound of drill rigs and fracking trucks now rules the high desert here. Gone is the mating call of the greater sage grouse, a showy bird that once strutted among blue-green hills puffing its chest and sounding odd rhythmic pops, squeaks and whistles. “We don’t have a lot of birds here right now,” Dale Woolwine, a BLM biologist, said on a bus tour last month through the Jonah field, now owned by Jonah Energy of Denver. “Lek attendance has dropped and is dropping around the field.”

There are more than 1,500 producing gas wells in the Jonah gas field in western Wyoming, leaving little room for resident sage grouse.

There are more than 1,500 producing gas wells in the Jonah gas field in western Wyoming, leaving little room for resident sage grouse. Photo by Phil Taylor.

Article updated at 3:11 p.m. EDT.

JONAH GAS FIELD, Wyo. — The sound of drill rigs and fracking trucks now rules the high desert here.

Gone is the mating call of the greater sage grouse, a showy bird that once strutted among blue-green hills puffing its chest and sounding odd rhythmic pops, squeaks and whistles.


A decade ago, the Bureau of Land Management approved a Canadian energy firm to drill up to 3,200 gas wells on this scenic patch of lands, with views of the snow-capped Wind River Range. But it was an unusually dense project that fragmented habitat for the several dozen male grouse that danced and sparred here.

Today, government biologists report that there are just six male grouse left. The birds gather at a single breeding ground, known as a lek, but have abandoned three other sites here, a couple dozen miles south of Pinedale.

"We don’t have a lot of birds here right now," Dale Woolwine, a BLM biologist, said on a bus tour last month through the Jonah project, now owned by Jonah Energy of Denver. "Lek attendance has dropped and is dropping around the field."

The bird’s disappearing act underscores a major challenge facing the Obama administration as it nears a September deadline to decide whether sage grouse need protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The mottled, brown bird faces a panoply of threats across its 11-state range, including wildfire and invasive species in the Great Basin and sod busting in Montana as well as the encroachment of juniper trees, predatory ravens, disease and intensive grazing. But a top threat across much of the sage grouse’s eastern range in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Montana is energy development — namely oil and gas.

Alleviating those threats will be key if the Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to avoid listing the bird.

The science is clear: Sage grouse don’t like the sights and sounds of drill rigs, tanks and truck traffic.

Wyoming is a prime example. As well-pad density increased nearly fourfold over the past two decades, sage grouse numbers declined by 24 percent, according to a 2014 study funded by Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department.

In eastern Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, an estimated 27,000 coalbed methane wells over the past decade have fragmented grouse habitat and created new reservoirs that have harbored mosquitoes — a vector for the grouse-killing West Nile virus. Breeding males in that basin numbered 1,600 at last count, a 76 percent drop from six years earlier, and could be entering an "extinction vortex," according to a report last month commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Across the West, oil and gas wells have physically disturbed some 308 square miles of grouse habitat, according to research published in 2013 by the U.S. Geological Survey. The total area of affected habitat — measured by a 12-mile radius from active wells where scientist believe grouse behavior may be affected — is about 300 times as large, covering an area the size of Oregon, according to the research.

Jack Connelly
Jack Connelly, a retired scientist for the state of Idaho, said it will take “hard decisions” by federal regulators to spare grouse from oil and gas threats. | Photo by Phil Taylor.

For the Obama administration and its pro-energy allies, the challenge is to keep the oil and gas spigot flowing without pushing the sage grouse closer to extinction.

"When we develop these areas for energy, we impact grouse," said Jack Connelly, a retired scientist for Idaho’s Fish and Game Department, who ranked oil and gas and other energy-related infrastructure as one of the three main threats facing sage grouse, along with wildfire and invasive species. "It’s going to take some courage to put forth meaningful plans that are actually going to stop the hemorrhaging."

FWS — which five years ago deemed the greater sage grouse a "candidate" species deserving protections under ESA, citing a lack of regulatory safeguards — has urged BLM and states to craft plans that shield the grouse’s best remaining habitat.

BLM and Western governors have recently stepped up to the challenge.

BLM last week released 14 final environmental impact statements that propose enhanced grouse protections on about 50 million acres (Greenwire, May 28). They set strict limits on the density of disturbance within grouse habitat and establish minimum setbacks, or buffers, from leks.

The plans, set to be finalized in August, aim to prove to Fish and Wildlife that sage grouse have adequate regulatory safeguards to preclude a federal listing.

"Together with conservation efforts from states and private landowners, we are laying an important foundation to save the disappearing sagebrush landscape of the American West," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week from Cheyenne.

Governors in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana and Idaho have recently signed their own sage grouse conservation plans, garnering various levels of endorsement from FWS.

Oil and gas officials have rallied around the state plans, favoring them above BLM plans that they warn would impose "one size fits all" restrictions in the West, where federal leasing has already dropped significantly under the Obama administration.

FWS officials say they would have no choice but to list the grouse without beefed-up protections on BLM lands, which comprise roughly 60 percent of the bird’s habitat.

"We’ve seen activists use the land-use planning process as a way to impose a federal one-size-fits-all approach that disregards state efforts tailored to actual conditions on the ground," said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA). "At that point, it’s not about species conservation. It’s about land control."

WEA last summer commissioned a report that detailed how companies have avoided, minimized and mitigated impacts to sage grouse, employing a host of steps to limit operations when grouse are most sensitive to disturbance, reclaim lands as soon as possible, drill directionally to limit surface disturbance, control predators, and reduce traffic, noise and visual impacts.

The report’s take-home point: The National Environmental Policy Act already provides a "robust regulatory mechanism to protect, conserve, and enhance the status of the species."

WEA will file protests against any BLM land-use plans that do not conform with state plans, Sgamma said.

The fierce debate over the plans is shadowed by some grim statistics.

The number of breeding male sage grouse declined by more than half from 2007 to 2013, falling from 109,990 to 48,641 across the West, according to the Pew-commissioned report. That’s down from historical estimates pegging grouse in the millions.

State wildlife officials argue that sage grouse populations are cyclical and that 2013 marked the bottom of a trough. They say numbers over the past decades have stabilized and that lek numbers have been on the upswing over the past two years.

Battle over wintering areas

Conflicts between oil and gas and sage grouse remain acute in Wyoming.

FWS considers the Cowboy State a grouse "stronghold" because it is home to roughly 40 percent of the birds. Wyoming is also one of the nation’s top producers of oil and gas, an economic lifeblood in a state where severance taxes and federal royalties from coal, oil and gas make up about 44 percent of the state’s revenue, according to WyoFile.

It’s a political juggling act for Gov. Matt Mead (R), who plans by late summer to sign an executive order updating the state’s sage grouse conservation strategy.

Mead’s order aims to strengthen a strategy established by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) in 2008 and affirmed by Mead in 2011. More importantly, it aims to convince FWS that sage grouse no longer face extinction.

The goal is to sustain production while maintaining the regulatory assurances FWS says are needed to avert a listing.

"It’s a big decision for him," said Pat Deibert, FWS’s national sage grouse coordinator, who lives near Cheyenne. "Do we not get the royalties? Do we not get the tax base off this energy development? Do we want to risk a listing? I don’t want to be in his shoes when he makes that decision."

So far, Fish and Wildlife has extolled Wyoming’s sage grouse plan as a model for Western states, citing its regulatory rigor.

It limits disturbances, both existing and new, to a maximum of an average of 5 percent per square mile and bars impacts within 0.6 miles of leks in core breeding areas that cover about one-fourth of the state and encompass about 83 percent of its birds. Disturbance limits apply equally to federal, state and private lands and also take into account non-energy disturbances like two-tracks and wildfires.

The plan could help FWS reach a "not warranted" decision in September.

However, Fish and Wildlife officials have expressed concern that Wyoming’s plan lacks protections for wintering areas — which grouse use during the snowy season when they feast almost exclusively on sagebrush.

Wintering areas, particularly those that lie outside of core breeding areas, offer key forage and are crucial to grouse survival, scientists say.

BLM’s Woolwine and other biologists recently discovered what is believed to be the largest sage grouse winter concentration area in the West, home to about 2,000 birds. But the lands happen to overlap with a major drilling project proposed by Jonah Energy several miles west of here known as the Normally Pressured Lance (NPL).

The project calls for drilling up to 3,500 wells on 140,000 acres of sagebrush lands, tapping what the company believes will be 5.25 trillion cubic feet of gas. Most drilling would take place at four times the concentration of what is allowed in core areas.

"Our future is rooted in NPL," said Paul Ulrich, Jonah’s director of government affairs.

Paul Ulrich
Jonah Energy’s Paul Ulrich inspects a former drill pad that was replanted with native vegetation about five years ago. The region’s arid climate makes it difficult to recover plant life after a disturbance. | Photo by Phil Taylor.

Fish and Wildlife officials have urged Wyoming to add the lands to its core areas, or consider similar protections. They note that some grouse have migrated from core breeding areas to access the NPL wintering grounds.

"The loss of that kind of a wintering area will have ripple effects into the breeding areas that those birds would normally return to, so it would be a much bigger loss than just the footprint of the wintering area itself," Deibert said.

A 2013 report by the Wyoming chapter of the Wildlife Society warned that sage grouse are "likely to avoid developed winter habitats with ongoing human activity." It recommended that production and maintenance activities be reconsidered in Mead’s executive order.

Yet it cautioned that too little is known to recommend precise buffer distances or well density limits to minimize impacts to sage grouse.

Ulrich said he strongly opposes core area protections at NPL, arguing that the company’s leases predate Freudenthal’s and Mead’s executive orders. BLM is already crafting protections in its environmental impact statement for NPL, Ulrich said. The state should let the federal process play out, he said.

"We want to make sure there’s an adequate level of protection — and not overprotect an area we know very little about from a biological standpoint," Ulrich said.

Mead’s sage grouse advisory team appears to have sided with Jonah. Last week, it agreed to recommend a temporary ban on NPL development to buy more time until better science emerges on wintering areas. The move largely codified Jonah’s decision last month to delay its project pending BLM’s review.

BLM’s draft EIS is due later this year, a spokeswoman said.

The agency declined to make any of its biologists available for this story.

Mark Sattelberg, FWS’s Wyoming field office supervisor, who serves on Mead’s grouse advisory team, said this week that the temporary ban on NPL drilling "gives us some comfort going forward," according to the Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune.

Cheers, jeers for Wyo.’s plan

On balance, Wyoming’s plan, which along with BLM’s land-use plans is considered a linchpin in efforts to safeguard sage grouse from mineral development, has garnered strong support from FWS.

"We think it was very proactive because it covers all lands, because it does have state regulatory authority behind it, and because it minimizes disturbance to a level that scientifically has been proven to be acceptable," Deibert said.

Unpublished data from Wyoming’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission provided by Wyoming Wildlife And Natural Resource Trust Fund Director Bob Budd point to the plan’s success.

From 2006 to 2012, the drilling of conventional vertical wells was reduced by more than 60 percent in core areas, a sign that industry is using less land to tap the same amount of minerals. Directional drilling over that timeframe has increased sixteenfold, according to the data. Industry now draws 85 percent of oil and gas from outside core areas.

A 2013 study led by the Nature Conservancy projected that Wyoming’s core area strategy, combined with federal investments to conserve grouse habitat on private lands, would reduce projected long-term grouse population declines by 62 percent within the core areas and by half for all grouse populations statewide.

Mead’s sage grouse advisory team is now recommending that the governor expand core areas by tens of thousands of acres, looping in an additional 1,000 birds, said Budd, who chairs the advisory team.

The team’s effort has earned some support from the oil and gas industry.

GRMR, a Broomfield, Colo.-based oil and gas company that has butted heads with landowners in south-central Wyoming, earlier this month said it supports a proposal to add 24,000 acres to Wyoming’s 913,000-acre South Rawlins Core Area near the Colorado border, a move that would impose new restrictions on the company’s leases. The expansion would increase the number of breeding birds protected at Rawlins from 1,448 to nearly 1,900, according to Tony Mong of Wyoming Game and Fish.

"Reluctantly, most of the oil and gas operators have said, ‘We get it,’" said state Sen. Larry Hicks (R), who serves on the advisory team and works out of Baggs, Wyo. Companies are acknowledging that short-term conservation sacrifices could help avert the larger harm of a listing, he said.

Such a listing would cripple Wyoming’s economy, draining funding for state services like senior citizen centers, schools, emergency services, county roads and bridges, Hicks said.

"This is our Achilles’ heel," he said, adding that even if FWS finds the bird not warranted for listing, it will have to defend the decision in court. "We don’t have to convince the service. We have to convince a judge."

But some conservation groups say Wyoming’s plan doesn’t pass scientific muster.

A report last July by Defenders of Wildlife argued that the 0.6-mile lek buffers in Wyoming’s plan are six times smaller than what the "best available science" recommends. Wyoming’s disturbance caps in sage grouse habitat are also almost twice as high as what is recommended by scientists, Defenders said.

Moreover, Wyoming’s plan currently contains only seasonal restrictions in sage grouse winter habitat when the birds are present. Disturbance in winter habitats must be restricted year-round in order to ensure that the habitat will remain intact and healthy for when grouse return, Defenders said.

Mead’s advisory team does not appear open to adopting those recommendations at this time.

"The state of Wyoming seems to be more interested in protecting the industries that are destroying sage grouse habitat than protecting the sage grouse," said Erik Molvar, a biologist for WildEarth Guardians, whose group signed a 2011 settlement with Fish and Wildlife that established September’s listing deadline.

Bouncing back?

Questions remain about whether state sage grouse plans crafted by Montana, Colorado and Utah will be deemed strong enough by FWS to confront the threats of mineral development.

Colorado’s plan, signed last month by Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), directs the state’s oil and gas regulator to exercise its full authority to foster mitigation for drilling that could harm grouse habitat and orders the launch of a habitat exchange by the end of 2015 to offer a marketplace for companies to offset their projects, among other provisions.

FWS Regional Director Noreen Walsh called the order a good step but cautioned that it lacks regulatory teeth, according to a letter she sent to Hickenlooper’s office.

The agency is reserving judgement on BLM’s plans, which will likely be the biggest factor in FWS’s September listing decision.

"Our status review will evaluate how the federal management plans fit together and how they work in concert with state plans and private lands conservation efforts to address threats to the species across the range," Fish and Wildlife said recently in a statement. "We look forward to seeing all of the pieces of this conservation effort — a comprehensive strategy to fight rangeland fire, strong conservation plans for federal public lands, and conservation actions on state and private lands — come together to conserve the greater sage-grouse and the larger landscape upon which it depends."

Where and how BLM permits drilling within sage grouse habitat will remain a major flashpoint.

Once sage steppe lands are disturbed by a drill rig, they take decades to recover to the point where they can support birds.

Jonah is a good case study.

At a drill pad one sunny afternoon last month, a pair of prairie dogs skittered about as an eagle soared overhead. Few other wild creatures could be found amid the drill pads, mauve-colored tanks and processing plants that pockmark the landscape.

"Only a handful of very small types of wildlife can make a living in that field anymore," said Molvar. "It’s a wasteland."

Reclaiming Jonah’s former drill sites has seen mixed results.

Of the more than 5,000 acres of sagebrush that has been scraped from these lands, about 4,500 acres is currently in some stage of reclamation, Jonah’s Ulrich said.

The company measures the land’s contours before drilling, stockpiles the topsoil and then, once drilling has concluded, reshapes the land and plants native seed mixes, some of which are designed especially for sage grouse, he said.

At one reclaimed pad, tiny sagebrush plants were sprouting from bare dirt among clusters of grasses including needle and thread and bluebunch wheatgrass, along with forbs, flowering plants that are key to the grouse diet.

But spurring growth is tough at Jonah, which ekes out less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, most of which is snow, said Eric Peterson, district manager for the Sublette County Conservation District. Restoring the land to its optimal sagebrush environment can take 70 years, he said.

Locally adapted seed stocks are expensive and scarce, and companies have a hard time beating back invasive species like cheatgrass and halogeton.

"It’s not like going down to the Home Depot and buying a potted plant," Peterson said. "The seeds are tiny. The soils are dry. They’re windblown. Some years, you may not get any germination."

The jury is still out on how long it takes for former drill sites to be fully reclaimed, if ever. That’s something FWS is sure to consider when it makes its listing decision.

Molvar said much of Jonah’s reclaimed lands are now overrun by halogeton, an invasive weed. Once sagebrush is scraped off the landscape, there is no longer a vegetative barrier to capture wind-blown snow and hold it to slowly melt into the soil, which supports plant growth, he said. Jonah at one point tried to install its own irrigation system, but later abandoned the plan.

Deibert, who also visited the Jonah field last month, said she was impressed at the company’s reclamation efforts and was surprised by the lack of invasive cheatgrass, a sign of aggressive weed control.

"We’ve gotten good moisture years in the past few years," she said. "However, that area will not be … functional sage grouse habitat for another 30 to 35 years. So while the reclamation is good and eventually you’ll get back to what the other sagebrush looked like, its value for sage grouse habitat is very limited — for a very long period of time."

Some reporting for this story was done on a field trip sponsored by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, a nonpartisan organization that draws funding from federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, corporations, industry groups, and charitable foundations.