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USGS Recommends Wide Buffer to Protect Greater Sage Grouse

A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on the greater sage grouse indicates the ground-dwelling bird may need a three-mile-wide buffer or more from oil and natural gas drilling, and renewable energy projects, which if enacted could impact development in 11 western states.

The recommended buffer is larger than current federal/state protections of sage grouse habitat.

The greater sage grouse was a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2010, but following a court settlement in 2011, the agency agreed to not make a decision on whether to list the bird as threatened or endangered before Sept. 30, 2015 (see Daily GPI, Dec. 30, 2011).

Two months ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a list of recommendations designed to help ensure conservation efforts by other agencies and stakeholders were effective and consistent in mitigating impacts to the bird’s habitat (see Daily GPI, Sept. 10). More recently, the Gunnison sage grouse, whose habitat is in Utah and Colorado, was placed on the ESA list as threatened (see Daily GPI, Nov. 11).

The USGS reportfor the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is an attempt to provide "a convenient reference for land managers and others who are working to develop biologically relevant and socioeconomically practical buffer distances around sage grouse habitat."

Because of a host of variables within the sage grouse populations and habitats, the USGS report said "there is no single distance that is an appropriate buffer for all populations and habitats" across the bird's range. "We report values for distances upon which protective, conservation buffers might be based."

In reviewing past studies on the behavior of the sage grouse and its movement, the distance of 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) was the radius in which the bird's nests were found in its breeding grounds, also known as leks.

The report cited past studies aimed specifically at energy development in and around habitat, some suggesting "negative trends" when the distance was less than 2.5 miles between the lek and the nearest producing well. For renewable energy development, less information is available, the authors said.

The report further reviewed literature on surface disturbances, roads, tall and low structures, and noise as contributing to habitat impacts in relationship to their proximity. The buffer distances are calculated in relationship to leks because the breeding areas are typically well known and identified.

"Protective buffers around lek sites can offer a useful solution for identifying and conserving seasonal habitats required by sage-grouse throughout their life cycle," the report noted.

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