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Study Finds Powder River Gas Drilling Lowers Sage Grouse Population

Although no changes are imminent, Powder River Basin coalbed methane (CBM) producers could face new environmental mitigation requirements or restrictions because of preliminary findings that production is having a negative impact on the sage grouse population.

The preliminary environmental research was conducted by a team headed by David Naugle at the University of Montana and funded by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal and private partners. The BLM said this progress report, while providing no definitive conclusions, does show a correlation between CBM development and reduced sage grouse populations within the development areas. It is not clear whether these population reductions are entirely due to avoidance of energy development, or if lower nesting success or higher bird mortality rates are also major contributing factors, BLM said. The report also shows that other disturbances such as agricultural development and surface mining can have similar effects.

The sage grouse issue has long ruffled the gas industry's feathers, so these findings are nothing new and they are merely the results of the first phase of a three-phase study that's being conducted. However, the study may soon provide scientific statistics on sage grouse populations in areas of CBM development in the Powder River Basin and that could have additional ramifications for the industry, particularly in Montana where development has been put on hold until a supplementary environmental impact statement (EIS) is completed next year. Following a court decision in 2004, Montana Powder River drilling permits were put on hold until the supplemental EIS is completed.

"While we have long believed that sage grouse populations were affected by development, this progress report will provide us a better assessment of those effects," said Howard Lemm, BLM's acting Montana state director. "This comes at an opportune time since we'll be able to account for the findings in upcoming planning documents that deal with [CBM]."

Meanwhile, drilling in the Wyoming portion of the Powder River continues full steam ahead. BLM Wyoming Director Bob Bennett said the agency plans to identify more and improved ways to "keep sage grouse habitat healthy." But BLM Wyoming spokesman Steven Hall noted that the Wyoming side of the Powder River is largely leased already so the agency can't place large areas of land off limits. It also can't go back and put in new stipulations on old leases.

Nevertheless, Hall said this report will have an impact on the way BLM Wyoming does business. "One of the things that came out of the study was the identification of some critical areas that might be very key to the sage grouse populations, and I think it might have to do with winter habitat," Hall said. "If we see some information like that...we may be able to identify areas that we need to protect or do additional mitigation in certain areas."

He said BLM most likely would work with industry to find news ways of mitigating the impact of drilling on the sage grouse population through consolidation of infrastructure leading to less surface impacts, for example. "I think what this study is really going to do is show the importance of this issue to industry, BLM, private surface owners, etc., to try to keep finding creative ways to protect sage grouse."

BLM said while the effects of development cannot be totally mitigated, impacts can be lessened by limiting the disturbance of habitat through the BLM leasing process, placing timing or season-of-use restrictions on drilling, and through adaptive management, which changes requirements based on the results of monitoring.

"We are going to have the state director from Wyoming and the acting state director from Montana meet with the researcher tomorrow," said Hall on Wednesday. "While this is important information we still need to have a complete picture of what's happening to sage grouse in the Powder River."

In addition to the study itself, the university is providing BLM and other sponsors with conservation planning tools that point to landscapes in the Powder River Basin where the right conservation activities could be implemented to protect sage grouse.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a status review last year that found that the greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, the agency's status review "clearly illustrate[d] the need for continued efforts to conserve sage grouse and sagebrush habitat on a long-term basis."

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