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Wyoming Sage Grouse Accord Permits Energy Development

Wyoming's accord to ensure a viable habitat for the greater sage grouse -- and ensure continued oil and natural gas development -- may prevent the bird from being listed in the state under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), officials said.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal issued an executive order on Aug. 1 outlining the state's plan to protect the game bird, whose population has plummeted across the West as oil and gas exploration and production has increased. The species is said to have lost more than half of its habitat in 11 states, including Wyoming.

Around 33 million acres of federal lands in Wyoming are open to mineral leasing and oil and gas development. Sage grouse "core" areas, which provide key habitat to the species, encompass about 10 million acres of the state's federal lands. According to scientific studies using data from 2000-2005, sage grouse populations with coalbed methane (CBM) activity declined by 86%, whereas populations outside of CBM development areas declined by 35%.

Wyoming's plan would legally apply only to the state's agencies, and it would carry no weight with federal agencies. However, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) indicated in June that it would work with Wyoming to carry out the protections (see NGI, June 23). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to decide by the end of this year whether to list the bird as "threatened" or "endangered" under the ESA.

"A lot of good work has been done to maintain healthy populations of sage grouse and other species in Wyoming," Freudenthal said. "But as we learned with the grizzly bear and wolf, if it is going to count for anything under the Endangered Species Act process -- both in terms of our efforts to delist already listed species and to prevent the listing of other sensitive species -- our work has to be more unified under the banner of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service terms 'adequate regulatory mechanisms.'

"The executive order does not create any new authority and legally only applies to state agencies, but is a vehicle to at least align the existing authorities of state government to ensure that we move forward under a more unified framework." If Wyoming's plan proves effective, the listing -- if it's done -- may not be warranted in Wyoming, Freudenthal said.

Developed by a task force that was initiated by Freudenthal last year (see NGI, Oct. 1, 2007), the state's plan creates core population areas throughout Wyoming. New oil and natural gas development still would be permitted in the core areas, but there are 12 separate stipulations under the order that could ensure drilling activity would result in no net loss of sage grouse or its habitat.

Funding, assurances, habitat enhancement, reclamation efforts, mapping and other proactive efforts to "focus and prioritize" the viability of the greater sage grouse in the state also are included in the order. The energy industry would be required to establish incentives to enable development outside of the core habitat areas that would include stipulation measures, enhanced permitting and density bonuses.

Audubon Wyoming Executive Director Brian Rutledge called the order "a courageous and commonsense act to protect the unique resources of the region."

The governor, said Rutledge, "has embraced the recommendations of countless Wyoming citizens thoughtfully and respectfully in prescribing a management approach that simply makes sense. Now it's up to the Department of the Interior to follow the lead of the state and adopt management that protects sage grouse habitat along with the economic and quality of life benefits the land provides to all of us."

By carefully managing the development of sage grouse habitat, the state "will have a far greater chance of maintaining this challenged species," Rutledge said. "This is a tremendous opportunity for the Bureau of Land Management to do the right thing and incorporate these habitat recommendations into their planning processes. We can have sage grouse and energy development, but we have to be careful how we do this. The time to act is now."

"We wanted to come up with a solution that protected an adequate number of sage grouse without shutting down the state development-wise," said the Wyoming Wildlife Federation's Mark Winland, who served on the state task force. "There was a lot of good give and take, and overall we came up with a core area strategy. It's a solid concept."

However, Clait Braun, research director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said BLM was under no obligation to follow Wyoming's recommendations. Colorado state officials now are considering sweeping changes that could restrict energy development in some of the state's wildlife regions.

"The proposed recommendations are a prescription for further fragmenting and isolating populations of sage grouse in Wyoming," Braun said. "What they should focus on is maintaining large blocks of habitat with suitable corridors for (grouse) movement. Once maps of 'populations' are distributed, there will be a constant nibbling of the edges until the habitat is no longer viable to support sage grouse."

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