Report: Grouse, gas can coexist

A new analysis conducted for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers finds minimal overlap between important greater sage-grouse habitat and federal lands and minerals with good development potential — with Colorado and Wyoming standing out as notable exceptions.

The group says that the analysis shows the ability to both protect sage-grouse while producing energy in the West. Its conservation director, John Gale, believes that even in Colorado and Wyoming there’s room for the sage-grouse and energy development to coexist. He questions Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent decision to review federal plans designed to protect the greater sage-grouse across 11 Western states.

“We’re definitely strong advocates for the conservation plans and we want to make sure they have the opportunity to work,” he said.

The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service adopted the plans in what was a successful effort to persuade the Fish and Wildlife Service that the greater sage-grouse didn’t warrant listing for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The Interior Department review includes looking at ideas such as captive breeding of sage-grouse and setting population targets by state, and determining if plan provisions need to be changed or revoked based on impacts on energy and other development on public lands.

The Backcountry Hunters & Anglers report, prepared by the Wyoming-based Western EcoSystems Technology Inc., found that 79 percent of federal lands and minerals within priority habitat management areas for greater sage-grouse under the conservation plans have no or low assumed oil and gas development potential.

“At a macro level it would seem to indicate that we can definitely coexist with energy,” Gale said.

In Colorado, more than half of the bird’s priority habit has either medium (18.3 percent) or high (34.1 percent) oil and gas development potential, the study found. In Wyoming, those figures are 16.5 and 31.9 percent, respectively.

Said Gale, “I think even where you have 50 percent of the area within the priority habitat falling into those categories the plans have the built-in flexibility to account for that and consider it.”

Colorado’s greater sage-grouse live in northwest Colorado, also a hotbed for oil and gas development. Wyoming is both a big energy-producing state and the state with the highest amount of federal lands and minerals in priority habitat areas, at nearly 12 million acres.

The study found that 98 percent or more of priority habitat acreage in Idaho, Oregon and Nevada had little or very low oil and gas development potential. Four-fifths of such habitat in Utah fell into those categories. In Montana, a little over a quarter of such acreage overlapped areas of medium or high development potential.

The analysis focused on seven states that include 97 percent of all priority habitat identified in federal conservation plans. Those plans also include general habitat areas for the bird with more flexible management, as well as areas such as breeding grounds that receive the highest protection. But the study focused on priority areas “because they contain large, undisturbed expanses of breeding habitat and the highest densities of sage-grouse,” the study said. In priority areas, “new habitat disturbance is limited or eliminated with limited exceptions,” the study says.

It found a 4 percent overlap between priority habitat and coal and oil and gas leases on federal land. The overlap for oil and gas leases alone is 15.5 percent in Colorado and 11.1 percent in Wyoming.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance industry group, said by email, “Since BLM has held up leasing in sage-grouse habitat for years, at least since 2010 when the plan revisions started, it’s no wonder that there aren’t many existing leases. Even nearly two years after the plans were finalized, there’s no dent in the backlog.”

She also questions the oil and gas potential assumptions used in the study. She said they’re based on a report by wildlife biologists rather than geologists, and use dated information that doesn’t account for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing advances that have expanded the potential for recoverable oil and gas nationwide.

“The (study) is just not a credible assessment of oil and natural gas potential. A simple glance at sage-grouse habitat maps and Western oil and gas producing basins shows obvious overlaps,” Sgamma said.

The study also doesn’t account for a U.S. Geological Survey report last year showing that western Colorado’s Piceance Basin has a much greater natural gas development potential than previously thought, she said. That report estimated that the Mancos shale in the basin might have 66 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas.

Garfield, Rio Blanco, Moffat and Jackson counties have sued the federal government over its sage-grouse management plan for Colorado, which they fear could cost the counties hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenues due to restrictions on oil and gas development. 

The study notes that the conservation plans require the BLM to prioritize energy leasing outside priority habitat, and says that in the seven states it analyzed, 71 percent of federal lands and minerals with medium or high development potential lie outside priority habitat. It noted that development also can occur within priority habitat where surface disturbance caps aren’t exceeded.

Gale says the state-by-state conservation plans represent thoughtful approaches involving industry, private landowners, fish and wildlife agencies and governments, and they aim to do what’s needed for habitat while balancing other uses on public lands. These plans are only now being put into effect, he said.

“We need to let them work,” he said.


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