Fans of sage grouse, that iconic bird of high desert and sagebrush steppe areas of the west, were dismayed earlier this month when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sold leasing rights to energy developers on some 57,000 acres, including over 23,000 acres of the country’s best sage grouse habitat in southwestern Wyoming, an area that conservationists call the “golden triangle” because of its importance to sage grouse survival.
As reported in the Washington Post, Tom Christianson, a recently retired Wyoming Game & Fish Department sage grouse biologist, described the area as a “Shangri-La for grouse…It’s just the best of the best in terms of bird density.”
A Wyoming online news source, WyoFile, quoted from a letter that Christianson sent to Wyoming governor Mark Gordon, on the critically important wildlife habitat of the Golden Triangle, especially for sage grouse.
The area includes a “super lek,” a grouse breeding territory that has had in excess of 300 male grouse during the spring mating rituals. There are several additional leks that routinely have over 100 male grouse in peak years. The average lek in Wyoming typically attracts 20 to 35 male grouse.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council and Audubon Rockies petitioned Governor Gordon, asking him to intervene, arguing that BLM failed to disclose critical information and that the habitat was too important to endanger.
The governor declined to intervene in the controversy. His office issued a statement in which the governor said he would not ask for any deferrals or postponement of lease sales. He concluded, “I want to stay the course at this time and continue with the process and protections we have for core sage grouse areas.”
Pete Obermueller, president of the Wyoming Petroleum Association, said that conservation groups overreacted, and that leasing of lands doesn’t equate to development. He sent an email to WyoFile stating, “Wyoming’s conservation plan is laser-focused on ensuring that development doesn’t occur where the activity is known to harm the bird. If an oil and gas operator leases acres inside a core area, they know full well the restrictions they face and they are signing up to meet Wyoming’s very high standards.”
According to WyoFile, eight of the lease parcels in the Golden Triangle include a stipulation that development not take place within six-tenths of a mile of the perimeter of occupied grouse leks in core areas. All ten parcels carry restrictions that prohibit surface use in core areas between March 15 and June 30.
Wyoming’s sage grouse protections are based on an Executive Order that was first issued by former governor Dave Freudenthal in 2008 and updated by succeeding governor Matt Mead in 2015. Governor Gordon’s statement indicates that he is studying the previous executive orders and plans to issue one of his own to “continue the legacy that has helped protect sage grouse habitat in Wyoming since 2007…We want to make sure the bird stays protected.”
Kathy Love, author of the book, “Sage Grouse, Icon of the West,” commented in a December opinion piece in the Washington Post, that in 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided not to put sage grouse on the Endangered Species List, but stepped up measures to protect and improve grouse habitat. In December 2018, the Trump Administration announced the elimination of Obama Administration regulations that conserve sage grouse habitat.
Ms. Love commented that while Trump Administration officials deny that the rollback would impact grouse, the policy document emphasized the intent to eliminate regulations that might “impede local economic opportunities.”
She concluded, “It is sad that fossil fuel extraction will contribute to climate change while simultaneously threatening an iconic bird tat has existed on the sagebrush steppe for millennia.”
There used to be millions of sage grouse on the western plains. Lewis and Clark encountered flocks of thousands. Current grouse numbers are estimated to be just 500,000, in 11 western states, half of the bird’s historic range.
Continued losses of sage grouse and their habitat is a sad commentary on government policies that emphasize energy development over survival of this great bird.