Wyoming Working To Balance Both Sage Grouse And Industry

May 18, 2015

A listing of the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act could deeply affect the industries making up the backbone of the Western economy like agriculture, oil and gas and mining. Stakeholders across 11 states are working to save the bird's population before the federal government steps in.

"Nobody likes the red tape, you know, the federal government bureaucracy stuff," said Wes McStay, a northwest Colorado rancher who allows conservation groups to host sage grouse lek tours on his ranch.

That's a sentiment they can agree with in nearby Wyoming, where nearly 40 percent of the entire sage grouse population lives and where the state is working to save sage brush land.

McStay partners with the Sage Grouse Initiative, a multistate effort wherein ranchers agree not to over graze habitat. In turn, the initiative gives them money to fund range improvements that should be good for both livestock and grouse.

Organizers say the key is targeting lands where they will get the biggest bang for their conservation buck, since even in large expanses of sagebrush, the birds tend to clump together in large numbers. Wyoming is running the most proactive program in the country to save sagebrush land -- significantly restricting development on nearly a quarter of the entire state.

A state-appointed Sage Grouse Implementation Team set aside core area habitat in 2008, hoping that minimizing disturbances would protect more leks and bring population numbers up. SGIT members include conservationists, representatives from agriculture, mining, government agencies and oil and gas.

The trucks, rigs and tanks at a Jonah Energy well site in southwestern Wyoming gives what used to be rolling hills of sage brush a much more industrial feel. Paul Ulrich, a Jonah Energy employee and member of the SGIT, didn't shy from that observation.

"There's no question that you're going to have short term impacts that need to be mitigated," he said.

Oil and gas companies have spent millions on sage grouse research and restoring habitat in this area Ulrich points out. The problem is determining what's the most important habitat is a shifting target.

Jonah Energy has leased more than 140,000 acres near its current operations where they hope to drill 3,500 more wells. In the last couple of years, biologists have discovered that nearly 20 percent of that land is pretty important for the grouse.

"We found that we have 2,000 birds wintering in this one area," said Pat Deibert, the national sage grouse coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, adding that losing winter habitat can significantly harm bird populations.

Pictured to the left, untouched sage brush habitat. To the right of the picture is a 3-year-old Jonah Energy habitat restoration project.
Credit Dan Boyce / Inside Energy

The Sage Grouse Implementation Team is presenting a five year core area strategy update to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead at the end of May. The team is recommending special care be taken with key winter habitat like in the lands leased by Jonah Energy. Paul Ulrich said his company will hold off on oil and gas development on those grounds until after a government review finishes in 2016.

"It's in our best interest to make sure that we get it right," Ulrich said.

It's a process that takes time though. Nearby the Jonah Energy site, a former natural gas drilling pad is being restored to its natural state. Right now, it's just grasses, with some tiny little sage brush poking out here and there. Restoration of this land into full sagebrush habitat could take as long as 50 years.

Editor's Note: This story comes from an environmental fellowship held by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.