Sitting in stark contrast to recent studies claiming a precipitous drop in Powder River Basin sage grouse populations, an environmental consultant hired by the energy industry to review the data found that the birds’ numbers are in fact on the rise, “even in heavily developed areas.”

Environmental consultant Renee Taylor of Casper, WY, hired by the energy industry to review sage grouse data from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF), said he can’t confirm the precipitous drop in the Powder River Basin sage grouse population reported by University of Montana and University of Wyoming scientists, according to an industry player who spoke with NGI.

The university studies concluded that current efforts to mitigate the impact of coalbed methane (CBM) development in the Powder River Basin (PRB) on the sage grouse and its habitat are not working and changes need to be made soon to avoid further loss of the bird population (see Daily GPI, July 11).

“When David Naugle of Montana and wildlife biologist Matthew Holloran of Wyoming came out with studies, we hired Renee Taylor of Taylor Environmental Consulting to look at the research to see what best management practices we could pull from those studies [to help protect sage grouse],” said Gene George, a Casper-based petroleum geologist who acts as a regulatory compliance representative for Yates Petroleum, a large independent gas producer.

But based upon Taylor’s analysis of data from WGF, “the overall grouse population, even in heavily developed areas, has gone up,” George told NGI. Taylor’s analysis “just simply doesn’t confirm Naugle’s published findings.”

“When we got further and further into it, we examined the sage grouse database of Wyoming Game and Fish and the statistics we got did not match what Holloran and Naugle were suggesting. We cannot produce their results,” George said. Since “we are using Wyoming Game and Fish data, you can’t say industry is slanted,” he said, adding that some of the work done by Taylor was funded by API [American Petroleum Institute], Yates and other energy companies and “it is our intent to have it published.”

Attempts to contact Taylor for comment were unsuccessful.

It is expected that three recently released peer-reviewed studies conducted by University of Montana conservation scientists Brett L.Walker, David E. Naugle and Kevin E. Doherty will be published in two scientific wildlife journals. The studies conclude that from 2000 to 2005 there was an 86% decline in sage grouse populations that were inhabiting active CBM fields in the Powder River Basin, whereas populations outside of CBM fields dropped by 35%.

Upon release of the studies, Bob Bennett, state director of the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management (BLM), encouraged parties interested in sage grouse to “familiarize themselves with the important research.”

George countered, “We know we have an impact on the bird, but it appears that the bird displaces from the real intense areas [of CBM activities].” He added, “It’s not a race to see who’s right, but the BLM is trying to make decisions based upon Naugle’s findings and our review of the Game and Fish data does not confirm Naugle’s projections and findings.”

Meanwhile Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has formed yet another sage grouse committee. Freudenthal said the newly formed “implementation team” is not a substitute for other sage grouse working groups “but will work in the short-term to consolidate what we already know and will hopefully advance our conservation efforts.” The new group is tasked with crafting statewide policy recommendations on best management practices to “enhance and preserve the habitat, breeding grounds and winter range of the sage grouse in Wyoming,” according to the governor’s office. It is comprised of representatives from state and federal agencies, conservation groups, industry and landowners who plan to meet frequently in the next few months. Freudenthal named as leader of the group Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust and former land manager for The Nature Conservancy.

Budd told NGI that he previously chaired a statewide sage grouse committee that was created five years ago. That group formed local sage grouse working groups. The new implementation committee will take a look at “all of that work sitting out there,” which was performed by industry, agricultural interests and conservation groups and make recommendations “on the ground,” said Budd. He said the goal is to determine “what are the things that we know today that will have a positive outcome for sage grouse,” and then implement them. “Somebody’s got to say this is what we need to do,” said Budd.

Freudenthal noted that “the potential listing of the sage grouse as endangered is a serious challenge to Wyoming and other Western states. We’re working proactively to shore up the habitat and necessary breeding grounds in hopes of preventing such a move by the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

John Emmerich, WGF deputy director, will oversee the technical team. The organization plans to have a list of recommendations by late September and the group’s first meeting is scheduled for July 31.

WGF has a listing of sage grouse sources on its Sage Grouse Management page.

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