Groups call for better protection for sage grouse


By The Sheridan Press

Via Wyoming News Exchange

SHERIDAN — In response to a call for comment from the Wyoming state government, a coalition of conservation groups, including those with long histories of advocacy for science-based sage-grouse protections, has recommended that the state of Wyoming strengthen the habitat and disturbance protections in its state sage-grouse plan. The groups submitted a letter outlining specific areas where protections necessary for long-term sage-grouse persistence are inadequate or absent.

“Wyoming currently faces commercial uses damage sage-grouse habitat and cause population declines,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Given these threats, the levels of protection offered in the plan are incompatible with the survival and recovery of the sage-grouse. A great deal of scientific research has established critical thresholds for sage-grouse persistence in the context of drilling, mining, infrastructure, and livestock grazing, and where the Wyoming plan has weaker standards they will need to be strengthened to come into alignment with the science.”

In the context of oil and gas drilling, state buffers around leks currently allow drilling as close a 0.6 mile from the lek itself, leaving the vast majority of nesting habitat open to industrialization. This is well outside the range of 3.1- to 5-mile buffers recommended in the science.

“The Wyoming plan allows far too much surface disturbance,” said Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy. “Five percent is a level much greater than is recommended in published studies, and calculates this disturbance, as well as facility densities, across vast areas — sometimes hundreds of square miles — in contrast to scientific recommendations that these criteria be satisfied on each square mile of sage-grouse habitat.”

The Wyoming plan treats livestock grazing as a “de minimis” impact, and its plan applies no conservation measures in this regard, even in the face of studies that show that sage-grouse need grass averaging 7 inches tall or more to hide from their natural predators, and demonstrating barbed-wire fences are a deadly collision hazard for low-flying grouse.

The state also does not currently incorporate restrictions on noise level, or provide detailed standards for the protection of sage-grouse winter concentration areas. Emerging science demonstrates that both of these are of critical importance to maintaining sage-grouse populations.

“Sage-grouse deserve better,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “This plan caters to extractive industries and will do almost nothing to prevent the extinction of this amazing species.”

Sage-grouse are known to ecologists as an “umbrella species,” and the assiduous protection of large Core Areas of sage-grouse habitat is helpful in the conservation of more than 350 species of plants and wildlife that inhabit the same areas that sage-grouse need to survive.

The bird’s numbers have plummeted from 16 million a century ago to between 200,000 and 500,000 today across its range. For northeastern Wyoming specifically, Greater Sage-Grouse numbers have declined significantly.

“Energy development has already created a mosaic of roads, power lines, and noise disturbance that has compromised grouse habitats throughout our region,” said Jackie Canterbury of Bighorn Audubon in Sheridan County. “Compensatory mitigation was one of the pillars of the 2015 determination for not listing sage-grouse but is now optional and will depend entirely on the willingness of industry and the states. If current state land management is any indication of future performance, we are all on shaky ground.”

The groups submitting the recommendations for a stronger state sage-grouse plan include Western Watersheds Project, American Bird Conservancy, Bighorn Audubon, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, Council for the Big Horn Range, Prairie Hills Audubon Society, Upper Green River Alliance, Wyoming Wilderness Association, and Black Hills Clean Water Alliance. The comment period for recommendations on the Wyoming sage-grouse plan closed on May 1.