With the sage grouse population apparently declining as quickly as coalbed methane (CBM) development expands in the Powder River Basin, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in Wyoming is attempting a friendly chicken dance with the region's oil and natural gas operators, indicating that applications for permits to drill outside the delicate habitat will be given priority.

The decision to revise the energy permitting process follows recent peer-reviewed studies on the effects of drilling in sage grouse habitat, the BLM told operators. The Wyoming BLM office said studies by bioscientists at the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation indicated that efforts to mitigate the impact of CBM development on habitat in the basin were not working (see NGI, July 16).

However, BLM wanted to make it clear to oil and natural gas operators that it is still amenable to energy development across Wyoming.

"Our goal is to maintain viable sage grouse populations in Wyoming while continuing to allow oil and natural gas development on public lands and the public mineral estate," said Wyoming BLM Director Bob Bennett.

CBM development in the prolific Powder River Basin was authorized by the 2003 Powder River Basin Environmental Impact Statement, Bennett noted. However, "the 2003 decision included adaptive management, allowing the BLM the flexibility to incorporate new information into decision making to help find the right balance between development and impacts to other natural resources."

In cooperation with researchers, industry and other state and federal agencies, Wyoming's BLM identified planning areas that contain relatively intact sage grouse habitat. The changes will affect 13 oil and gas operators and one electrical power provider, according to the agency.

Approximately 346,155 acres are affected in Wyoming. In the Powder River Basin, only 11% of the surface is managed by the BLM, and 97% of the public mineral estate has been leased. (About 64% of the basin's mineral estate is owned by the public and managed by the BLM.) The sage grouse habitat areas identified amount to "slightly more than 7% of the Powder River Basin," the agency noted.

Going forward, the BLM's approach in the basin for the sage grouse habitat will include:

Achieving a compromise with energy companies is preferable to having the federal government list the sage grouse on the threatened or endangered species list, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said. In June, Freudenthal appointed a sage grouse committee that included a BLM representative. Bennett said the BLM wants "to ensure that we meet our obligations as federal land managers, and not preclude any of the innovative ideas or plans that may come out of the governor's working group."

Wyoming is not the only western state that BLM is considering as it makes decisions on energy development. In July, BLM deferred leasing 73,000 acres in east-central Montana that had been scheduled for auction because the area included a winter habitat for sage grouse (see NGI, July 23).

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