Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal last week issued a revised executive order on the state's sage grouse core population area strategy, which is expected to impact not only natural gas and oil operators, but also wind power development.

The governor said the revised order would protect the bird from being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) while still offering opportunities for resource development. Executive Order 2010-4 includes revised maps with new boundaries of protected core area habitat where development is prohibited. The order replaces Executive Order 2008-2, which allowed for development in noncore areas, even where sage grouse were present.

Wyoming officials in late June had recommended protecting more land as core area habitat for sage grouse (see NGI, July 5). The recommendations closely followed a lawsuit filed in June by the Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians concerning ESA protections for the sage grouse.

"We need to protect what truly needs protecting and provide flexibility and opportunity outside core areas," Freudenthal said. "Sage grouse management, as outlined in this executive order, is driven by the best data we have regarding sage grouse habitats, populations and impacts to the species. It is clear there will be specific cases where the application of habitat protections will require site-specific variation, and the process to determine that flexibility is clear and fair."

The new order was compiled using updated data developed by a study funded by the Wyoming Legislature. The listing of the greater sage grouse under the ESA "would have a significant, adverse effect on the economy of the state of Wyoming, including the ability to generate revenue from state lands," the executive order noted. The order suggests that the core population areas not be altered for at least five years, although Freudenthal indicated that he would be open to a more immediate review if new data becomes available.

Among other things, the revised order reiterates that wind development would not be permitted in sage grouse core areas. On two separate occasions, noted the governor, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has stated that the best available science indicates that wind development is incompatible with core area protection.

The executive order lists 17 provisions and addresses issues that were not fully developed in the 2008 order, mostly because of a lack of data and information, said the governor's office. The issues addressed include mapping, connectivity zones and development outside of core areas.

Also affected by the executive order are connectivity zones, which help to ensure genetic mixing of sage grouse population, considered a key issue in the decision by the FWS earlier this year that sage grouse warrant listing under the ESA (see NGI, March 8).

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) earlier this month released a proposed Resource Management Plan (RMP) and final environmental impact statement for the Little Snake Field Office in northwestern Colorado, which when implemented would guide federal leasing decisions for almost two decades. Among other things, federal officials plan to increase protections for the sage grouse and its habitat.

Around 9.9 Tcf of recoverable natural gas reserves is estimated to exist across more than four million acres within the planning area, officials said. The plan would guide subsequent management decisions on about 1.3 million acres of BLM-administered public lands and an additional 1.1 million acres of subsurface mineral estate administered by the Little Snake Field Office in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.

Most of the lands managed by the office in Craig, CO, have high (63%) or medium (10%) potential for gas and oil. About 90% of the 1.9 million acres of federal minerals covered by the proposed RMP would be open to gas and oil leasing, said officials.

The proposed plan continues to allow natural gas and oil development on BLM-managed lands and minerals, but new stipulations and conditions were added to ensure that sensitive resources receive adequate protection, BLM stated. Among other things the 77,000-acre Vermillion Basin would be closed to future leasing under the proposed RMP.

The Little Snake Field Office contains some of the "highest priority" sagebrush habitats in Colorado, according to BLM. Under the proposed RMP, habitat fragmentation in high- and medium-priority sage grouse habitats would be minimized through a voluntary incentive program on existing leases, as well as required stipulations on new leases. The incentives and stipulations would apply to more than 500,000 areas of high-priority habitat and 1.5 million acres of medium priority habitat.

Operators with existing leases in high- and medium-priority sagebrush could receive exemptions to wildlife timing limitations if they voluntarily limited surface disturbance to 5% of a lease and provided BLM with a plan of development illustrating a strategy to maintain large blocks of unfragmented sagebrush habitat.

For new leases, operators working in the highest-priority sagebrush habitats, or "core areas," as defined by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, would have to keep their drilling disturbances below 1% of the lease and submit a plan of development. In medium-priority habitats, operators would be required to keep disturbances to less than 5% of the lease and submit a plan of development.

Existing leases that expire would be subject to the new requirements. Also, sage grouse leks (breeding areas) would be protected within a 0.6 mile no surface occupancy buffer, which is an increase from the 0.25 mile proposed in BLM's draft plan issued in 2007. Last week Wyoming also updated its sage grouse habitat plans to ensure gas and oil development could coexist with the birds (see related story).

A public protest period for the proposed RMP ends Sept. 13. Information is available at (970) 826-5000. The proposed RMP also has been sent to Gov. Bill Ritter's office for a consistency review. A record of decision is to be issued after the consistency review and when any protests have been resolved, the agency said.

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