Tale of the tape — Interior’s grouse protection plans

By Phil Taylor | 06/05/2015 01:11 PM EDT

The Bureau of Land Management released final plans last week for bolstering sage grouse protections across 50 million acres in 10 states in what’s been called the agency’s largest landscape-scale conservation plan.

The Bureau of Land Management released final plans last week for bolstering sage grouse protections across 50 million acres in 10 states in what’s been called the agency’s largest landscape-scale conservation plan.

The Obama administration said the plans are a critical step to saving the West’s vanishing sagebrush habitat and convincing the Fish and Wildlife Service that sage grouse need no protection under the Endangered Species Act.

But industry groups panned the administration’s land-use plans as a property grab, warning that they will restrict oil and gas drilling, mining, and other forms of development across much of the West and cause more economic harm than a federal listing (E&ENews PM, May 28).


The plans will be a linchpin in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision this September about whether sage grouse need Endangered Species Act protection. Stringent safeguards on BLM and Forest Service lands — which represent about two-thirds of grouse habitat — could avert a federal listing and ease development restriction on private lands.

The resource plans released last week divide federal tracts into three categories: 31 million acres of "general habitat management areas," 35 million acres of "priority habitat management areas," and 11 million acres of "sagebrush focal areas," a subset of priority habitat.

But the extent to which those designations would limit new drilling pads, wind farms and transmission lines — and the extent to which they move the needle for sage grouse conservation — remains unknown.

Greenwire reviewed the land-use plans, inquired with BLM, and interviewed conservation and industry sources for insight into how the plans might change the regulatory playing field.

Some key numbers:

  • New areas put off-limits to oil and gas surface development: 28 million acres. BLM says the plans impose "no surface occupancy" (NSO) restrictions for new leases in priority habitat except in Wyoming, where plans generally conform to a 2008 system implemented by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D). Total NSO restrictions would cover an area the size of Ohio. Exceptions would only be granted when drilling activities would have "no impact or a positive impact" on grouse, BLM said. Companies may develop new leases in priority habitat, but only through the use of directional drilling. But NSO restrictions will not apply to existing leaseholders.
  • Tracts with new disturbance caps: 35 million acres. The plans would limit the portion of a tract that can be disturbed by mines, oil and gas wells, and infrastructure in priority habitat that sprawls over an area as big as Wisconsin. Total surface disturbance would be capped at 3 percent in all states except Wyoming, which would be capped at 5 percent. Disturbance caps, which scientists say prevent declines in sage grouse, have been law in Wyoming since 2008 and are endorsed by the state’s Republican governor. "All disturbance, including that associated with valid existing rights, will count against the cap," BLM said.
  • Acres of restrictions around grouse breeding areas: Unknown. BLM’s plans establish buffers that would prohibit, with locally tailored exceptions, development near breeding areas, or leks, in both priority and general habitat. Buffers range from a quarter-mile for noisy activities like motorized recreation to 3 miles for energy development and roads. But it’s unclear how many acres this represents. It will depend on how many leks are on BLM and Forest Service lands and how they’re spaced. Federal biologists don’t know the number, but a study released in April by leading sage grouse scientists notes that the bird has been observed on more than 10,000 leks since the 1960s on federal and nonfederal lands. A 3-mile buffer for a single lek would encompass nearly 18,000 acres. However, BLM noted that the majority of leks on agency lands would already be protected by other provisions in the land-use plans. "With the disturbance caps, exclusion areas and avoidance areas all in place, we expect very few projects will even be considered near leks," it said.
  • Areas placed off-limits for wind and solar: 35 million acres. The plans would designate 27 million acres of priority habitat as off-limits to wind farms and an additional 8.3 million acres of "avoidance" areas in Wyoming where wind projects could be developed "with special stipulations." Solar would be a no-go in almost all priority habitat areas.
  • Acres placed off-limits for major transmission lines: zero. But the plans would require developers to avoid siting power lines within priority habitat and some general habitat in some states. If alternative sites cannot be found, developers would be required to perform off-site mitigation.
  • Areas of recommended mineral withdrawals: 9 million acres. The plans recommend that the Interior Department withdraw roughly 9 million acres within the sagebrush focal areas from future hardrock mining claims, which would ensure mines are not developed in key grouse habitat. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 allows the Interior secretary to withdraw lands from mining claims for up to 20 years at a time. Former Secretary Ken Salazar used the authority in 2012 to withdraw roughly 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon, a decision that was highly controversial. It’s unclear when, or if, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell intends to act on these recommendations for grouse. "The secretary will consider information provided by states, stakeholders and others on mineral potential, including rare earths, as well as the importance of the areas as sagebrush habitat," BLM said.
  • New areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC): zero. FLPMA requires BLM to consider the designation of ACECs when it updates its land-use plans. Such areas can be established to protect special scenery, historical resources or wildlife, and can contain a variety of site-specific management prescriptions. Defenders of Wildlife lobbied BLM to designate ACECs to serve as a "system of sagebrush reserves." But BLM had other plans.
  • Length of time that plans will be in effect: up to 15 years. The sage grouse plans will remain in effect until BLM and the Forest Service decide to update them, which typically occurs every 15 years. The agencies could decide to revise any of the 98 plans at any time; however, significant revisions must undergo a lengthy National Environmental Policy Act review. These plans, once they are signed in late summer, will likely be the law of the land for many years.

The administration insists the final plans will have a relatively small impact on energy development.

For example, only 10 percent of the 35 million acres of priority habitat is believed to contain "high" or "medium" potential for oil and gas development, BLM said. That estimate is based on the U.S. Geological Survey’s resource estimates from its 2002 National Oil and Gas Assessment.

In addition, about 97 percent of areas with high wind potential are outside priority habitat, and none of BLM’s designated solar zones in the Southwest overlap with priority habitat, BLM said.

"Some will say the plans lock up development," Jewell said as she rolled out the plans last week in Cheyenne, Wyo. "I’d say, look at the numbers. The vast majority of the conventional and renewable energy resources that exist in these landscapes that we have in the plans will be available for development."

That claim is backed by an independent report released last October by Western EcoSystems Technology Inc. and commissioned by the Western Values Project, which found roughly 84 percent of federal lands and minerals within priority areas of conservation — which consist of 75 million acres of prime sage grouse habitat identified by the Fish and Wildlife Service — have zero to low potential for oil and gas development.

Industry officials don’t buy it.

The Western Energy Alliance estimated that BLM’s draft land-use plans released in recent years would threaten between 9,170 and 18,250 jobs in the oil and gas sector and have $2.4 billion to $4.8 billion in annual economic impact across Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.

Laura Skaer, executive director of the American Exploration & Mining Association, said companies believe they would be better served by a federal listing.

"With a listing, there is a recovery plan," she said. "There is no recovery plan from the onerous and draconian restrictions in the land-use plan amendments released last week. Once finalized, it will be almost impossible to change them."