Conservationists ask Gordon to intervene in lease sale

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Conservationists sent an emergency letter to Gov. Mark Gordon on Friday asking him to intervene in a BLM oil and gas lease sale that targets what one sage grouse expert calls “the highest grouse density areas on Earth.”

The Bureau of Land Management began auctioning 758,198 acres of federal acres of oil and gas leases Monday, including some in a pristine area northeast of Farson biologists call the Golden Triangle. The rolling sagebrush landscape there on the borders of Sublette, Sweetwater and Fremont counties is home to “the healthiest sage-grouse population on the planet,” the former Wyoming Game and Fish statewide greater sage grouse biologist told WyoFile.

In that Golden Triangle, more than 800 male grouse strut annually on irreplaceable mating grounds called leks, retired Game and Fish biologist Tom Christiansen said. “I’m shocked and dismayed that the BLM would lease such large acreages right on top of the highest density of sage-grouse in Wyoming and on Earth,” Christiansen wrote WyoFile in an email.

Christiansen took his worries regarding the BLM plans to the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Audubon Rockies office who, in turn, wrote Gov. Mark Gordon on Friday (see below).

“We are writing with a sense of great urgency to request that you intervene immediately,” the letter from WOC and Audubon says.

But the state has a method of protecting grouse even in this area, the head of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team told WyoFile on Monday.  “I think it’s maybe a bit of overreaction,” Bob Budd said of the letter. “We have very strict stipulations that would go on those leases — where they could go in a core area what they can do.”

The groups asked the governor to “urge the BLM to refrain from selling at its upcoming February and March oil and gas lease sales thirty-one (31) parcels near South Pass that contain the most robust populations of Greater sage-grouse on the planet.”

Brian Rutledge, executive director of the Audubon Society’s Rocky Mountain Region and Dan Heilig, WOC’s senior conservation advocate, signed the correspondence and attached maps and a description compiled by Christiansen.

A federal commitment to prioritize oil and gas leasing outside of core population areas — designated across Wyoming in the series of executive orders penned by two Wyoming governors — was a key element in keeping the species off the threatened and endangered species list in 2015. But that policy appears to be unraveling under federal leasing practices implemented by former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

Zinke remains the subject of a federal Department of Justice investigation.

“We’re supposed to be prioritizing leasing outside core areas,” Rutledge said. Instead, “it looks like BLM is prioritizing the sale of core areas.”

In their letter to Gordon, the conservationists wrote that he needs some breathing room to update the executive order inherited from Gov. Matt Mead when Gordon took office this year. Gordon told WyoFile in January that he intends to revisit the executive order, as Mead did when he succeeded Gov. Dave Freudenthal, and update it.

The BLM reviewed the leases for the two sales in environmental analyses and concluded that various stipulations and conditions would protect greater sage grouse. But the reviews came up short in describing the impacts to greater sage grouse, Heilig said.

“None of this information was disclosed” by BLM, Heilig said of high-density breeding grounds. Beyond not properly describing the environmental and wildlife conditions, the reviews also failed to document potential effects leasing could have. He called the shortcomings “serious deficiencies.”

“We are sorry for not bringing this matter to your attention earlier,” Friday’s letter to Gov. Gordon said, “but the environmental assessment (EA) prepared by the BLM for the special February 2019 lease sale did not disclose this particular information, and we just discovered the details yesterday afternoon.”

Both a BLM spokesman and the Wyoming Game and Fish habitat coordinator said Monday that potential developers still have to get approval from the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission before drilling. That body could impose protections after the leases are sold, they said.

The online lease sale that began Monday runs through March 1, according to the BLM sale notice. Another, separate sale is scheduled for March. The sensitive sage grouse habitat in the Golden Triangle that’s on the auction block in February comes up on the sale’s last day — actually on March 1 —  they said.

“[S]o there is still time to intervene,” the letter reads. “We are hopeful that if you ask the BLM to defer these parcels, it will do so.”

Wyoming — considered a leader in sage grouse conservation because of  its gubernatorial orders protecting core-area habitat — should be able to exercise its knowledge, history of conservation and expertise, the two told the governor.

“The BLM has emphasized repeatedly in various policy documents that states enjoy significant authority over wildlife, and has, to our knowledge, granted every request for deferral submitted by the [Wyoming Game and Fish Department] since at least 2017,” the letter reads.

Widely hailed as a novel conservation tool, the gubernatorial sage grouse order delineating core sage grouse habitat is not sufficient to protect the birds and their habitat if the BLM fails to manage accordingly, the letter says.

“… [T]his area harbors the largest and most significant population of birds in the state, and we fear that any development in this area, even though subject to the conservation measures contained in the [Sage Grouse Executive Order], could potentially impact the viability and robustness of these thriving populations,” the letter states. “Given the tremendous importance of this population to the overall effort to conserve greater sage-grouse, there simply is no room for error.”

Heilig outlined the worries further in a telephone interview Monday.

“The problem … is that the Sage Grouse Executive Order does not prevent development,” he said. “It’s merely an attempt to minimize impacts. The bottom line is one could envision a major oil and gas project on these parcels.”

In an email to WyoFile, retired Game and Fish grouse lead Christiansen detailed why the executive order does not protect the area. “It still allows for the possibility of high-density development in what is now relatively pristine habitat for the healthiest sage-grouse population on the planet,” he wrote.

In his description of the Golden Triangle included in the letter to Gov. Gordon, Christiansen describes the world-class resource there.

“Southeast Sublette and southwest Fremont County support the highest density of sage-grouse in Wyoming and rangewide,” Christiansen wrote. “The Divide Lek in the Dry Sandy Drainage is one of the three largest leks in Wyoming, with over 300 strutting males documented in recent years.”

The Divide Lek is a high-altitude meadow near the Continental Divide and South Pass that stretches more than a half mile. Each spring hundreds of male sage grouse flock to the meadow to perform their early morning mating dance: strutting, clucking, fanning their tails and noisily puffing out the air sacs in their chests to attract females.

When Christiansen conducts his annual survey counting strutting males in the area, he drives his pickup across miles of dirt roads to reach a vantage point a respectful distance from the leks. He mounts a spotting scope on his half-rolled down window and scans the meadows three times, if he can, averaging his tallies for his records.

In 2015, WyoFile watched as he counted 182 strutting males at the Continental Divide Lek.

In addition to holding one of the top three leks in Wyoming and perhaps the world, the Golden Triangle is home to the Hay Creek, Monument Draw, Williams Reservoir 2, North Plume Rock, Spicer 3 and other leks that “typically exceed 100 males in peak years.”

That means the at-risk breeding grounds in the Golden Triangle are the haunt of more than 800 male sage grouse during peak years. WyoFile mapped at least two proposed leases within 1.5 miles of  the Continental Divide lek and between it and others. Biologists consider habitat surrounding leks extremely valuable for nesting hens and their growing chicks.

In the same manner as Christiansen, dozens of Game and Fish employees, independent biologists and trained volunteers participate each year in the annual counts that take place on hundreds of leks across the state. The annual census is critical to assessing the health of the population of the imperiled bird given that Wyoming holds 39 percent of the world’s greater sage grouse population and habitat.

There are perhaps 200,000 to 500,000 greater sage grouse remaining in the world, all in 11 western American states. They have been extirpated from about five states and some researchers believe they once may have numbered as many as 16 million individuals.

Friday’s letter to Gordon outlines a hoped-for conservation strategy; “[W]e understand that you have ordered a review and evaluation of the State’s sage-grouse executive order,” the letter reads. “Deferring leasing in the highest grouse density areas in Wyoming would preserve decision space and allow for meaningful discussions about land management allocation for high-density grouse areas such as those at issue here.”

Christensen said there should be little or no development that mars the landscape.

“This specific area is too important to sage-grouse, and to the unprecedented efforts being made to prevent the need to list the species as Threatened or Endangered, to permit surface developments of any significance,” Christensen wrote in an email. “If these leases proceed to sale, they should only be issued with No Surface Occupancy stipulations.”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department had previously decided not to recommend no surface occupancy as requested by the conservationists said Angi Bruce, habitat protection program supervisor for the agency said in a telephone interview Monday. The Game and Fish did not recommend them to be No Surface Occupancy, she said.

The agency also requested that six of the parcels being offered in the Golden Triangle during the March sale be deferred because of their importance to mule deer, according to a December comment letter to the BLM. The letter also noted the parcels’ location in sage grouse core area but said the agency sought deferral to address deer, not grouse, worries. The BLM appears to have added some language seeking to protect deer on one parcel in a supplemental lease notice published in February.

She said she believes the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission would listen to Game and Fish when issuing development permits. “I don’t know of any case where a permitting agency hasn’t listened to our recommendations,” she said.

Audubon Rockies, WOC, and The Wilderness Society all protested the ongoing BLM sale, Heilig said, but without success. Others, including National Outdoor Leadership School, Wild Earth Guardians, The Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers, Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project also protested. BLM spokesman Brad Purdy last week said the protests would be answered before the sale and they were. The agency dismissed almost every objection, including that many leases were in priority sage grouse habitat and detrimental to grouse.

In addition to the 758,198 acres in 565 parcels on the auction block starting Monday, the BLM has proposed selling leases to another 140 parcels containing 148,909 acres — including more property in the Golden Triangle — beginning March 19. Heilig said WOC is protesting that sale as well.

“The areas that these groups are referring are open for leasing,” BLM spokesman Purdy said. Numerous stipulations protect grouse habitat, he said. Numerous stakeholders were involved on the environmental analyses, Purdy said, and were taken into account. “All that is out there.”

Among the protections imposed on many leases issued in core sage grouse habitat are limits on when development can occur, for example, or how dense a development might be allowed. “Those stipulations are going to be in place,” he said. “Leasing doesn’t always result in development.”

SGIT leader Budd agreed. “Game and Fish has a really good process we’re following,” he said. “As long as they’re [Game and Fish Department] coming in and saying ‘I think we can manage it,’ I think we’re comfortable.”

WyoFile sought comment from the Petroleum Association of Wyoming last week, but did not receive responses by deadline.