New Limits on Drilling Included in Interior, Agriculture Plans to Protect Sage Grouse

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By Tripp Baltz

May 28— The Interior and Agriculture departments have released final environmental impact statements for 14 federal land-use plans, including new limits on energy development, to protect greater sage grouse populations and habitat in the West.

The grouse management plans, covering 10 of the 11 states where the bird lives, represent a “range-wide strategy” to protect “not just greater sage grouse but also the sage grouse steppe ecosystem that is so important,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said May 28.

“Healthy sage grouse habitat and a healthy economy go hand in hand,” she said. “These are strong conservation measures that allow for development and use of the land.”

The plans, which outline actions to be taken on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands, are part of a comprehensive strategy that includes fighting rangeland fires and implementing conservation measures on state and private lands, the department said.

The land-use plan revisions cover the states of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Washington state, which has a grouse population, was not included in the final plans.

Some 55 percent of the total grouse population of between 200,000 to 500,000 birds lives in Wyoming and Montana. Nevada and Idaho each have about 14 percent. No other state in the range exceeds 7 percent.

Caps on Surface Disturbance 

The plans will require energy companies to abide by caps on surface disturbance and occupancy, as well as buffer zones around leks—mating areas for the ground-dwelling, chicken-sized bird.

The plans require energy companies to minimize new or additional surface disturbance to reduce habitat fragmentation and protect intact sagebrush habitat. Meanwhile, they will honor all valid existing rights, including those for oil and gas development, renewable energy, rights of way, locatable minerals and other permitted projects.

The plans represent a “proactive” approach aimed at preventing a listing of the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, state and federal officials said.

“Some will say they don't go far enough, that we are not doing everything we can to address the bird,” Jewell said. “They are grounded in the best available science, based on the guidance of the best fish and wildlife scientists,” she said.

“Some will say these plans lock up development, or that we are shutting down activity for the bird,” she said. “I say look at Wyoming. This is a state that is thriving economically, with robust energy development.” Meanwhile, the state has “been the heart of conservation efforts,” she said.

‘Better Path Forward.’

“There is no future for our economy if we don't take care of the sage grouse,” said Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), who joined Jewell in announcing the plans at Hereford Ranch in Cheyenne, Wyo. “It's not in the best interest of the bird to be listed. What we found here is … a better path for how to handle endangered species.”

Mead is chair of the Sage Grouse Task Force, formed in 2011 by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Western governors, to avoid a listing of the bird and develop a cooperative approach to preserving the species across the West.

Robert Bonnie, agricultural undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said the scale of the plans was unprecedented. “What you are all working on here is going to change the Endangered Species Act and conservation in a very significant way,” he said.

Listing Determination 

The Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court order to issue a final ESA listing determination for the bird by the end of September. In March 2010, the service said a listing of the bird was “warranted, but precluded” by the need to address other more urgent species first. 

The species faces several threats across its 165-million-acre range, including oil and gas production, wind energy development, wildfires and invasive grass species. It now occupies about 56 percent of its historic range, and its population has declined by about 30 percent since 1985.

The land-use plans were developed over the past three years by the BLM and Forest Service with the cooperation of states, local governments, wildlife scientists and other interested parties. About 64 percent of the bird's range is on federal land, 31 percent on private land, and 5 percent on state land. 

Federal Responsibility 

“As land managers of two-thirds of greater sage-grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving Western economy,” Jewell said.

The oil and gas and mining industry decried the plans, calling it an unparalleled removal of access to public lands.

“The withdrawal of nearly nine million acres of federal lands located in 10 Western states is unprecedented in scale, unwise from a minerals security standpoint and unnecessary to protect the greater sage grouse habitat,” Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, said in a statement.

Let states manage the bird, others said. “If the Administration really cares about the bird, they will adopt the state plans as they originally said they would,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “The state plans work. This proposal is only about controlling land, not saving the bird.”

‘State-Led’ Efforts Called Best 

“We continue to believe state-led efforts are the best approach to protecting the greater sage grouse,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said in a statement. “The federal agencies rely heavily on regulatory mandates, but Colorado has found that incentive-based approaches in combination with regulation are the most effective.”

The goal of conserving the sage grouse and its habitat is “best achieved at the state level, not with a one-size-fits-all federal approach,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group in Denver.

She said the group will protest all land-use plan amendments that fail to conform with state plans, as well as “continue to support actions by Congress to delay these land-use plans and a final listing decision.”

Plans Called ‘Step in Right Direction.'

Some environmentalists called the plans “a step in the right direction,” while others said they feared the conservation measures would not be enough to protect the bird.

“We hope that at the end of the day, these plans produce a ‘glass-half-full’ outcome and not another disconcerting ‘glass-half-empty’ disappointment that leads to the end of the grouse,” Steve Holmer of the American Bird Conservancy said in a statement.

“The adequacy of the conservation measures in the plans must not be judged by how much they change the land management status quo, but whether they will actually reverse the trend toward extinction of the species,” said Randi Spivak, director of the public lands program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

High-Value Habitat 

The plans offer the highest level of protection in the most valuable habitat, known as Priority Habitat Management Areas, where they will seek to eliminate new surface development. In General Habitat Management Areas, which are not considered as important as priority habitat, they will seek to reduce surface impacts.

Advanced drilling techniques such as horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing make it possible to conserve sensitive habitats while still developing subsurface resources, the Interior Department said.

The plans also call for improving habitat condition through “purposeful management,” the department said. They will require mitigation to enhance sage grouse habitat when there are unavoidable impacts from development.

The plans seek to fight the spread of cheat grass and other invasive species, position wildland fire management resources for more effective rangeland fire response and accelerate the restoration of fire-affected landscapes to native grasses and sagebrush.

Other officials at the announcement were BLM Director Neil Kornze and Bob Budd, executive director, Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.

The plans will now undergo a 60-day Governor's Consistency Review period and a concurrent 30-day protest period, after which records of decisions will be signed.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at abaltz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The environmental impact statements and updated land use plans are available at www.blm.gov/sagegrouse.