Saving the sage-grouse: Can oil and conservation work together?

Unless oil and gas companies can compromise with conservationists, 11 states and their economies stand to lose billions

The greater sage-grouse, which dates to the last ice age, is down to half its numbers.
Jerret Raffety / Rawlins Daily Times / AP

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series investigating the complex relationship among the oil and gas industries, major gun groups and the hunting community. The first installment can be found here. The third installment can be found here.

PINEDALE, Wyo. — The anticline is a tableland of nearly 200,000 acres, the Tetons visible in the distance and, in June, still covered with snow. The plateau is filled with sagebrush that barely reaches the knee, short grass, dirt roads and the occasional oil drill. Beneath its rocky surface are 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, one of the richest concentrations in the entire United States.

More than 350 species of animals — from elk, mule deer and pronghorn to various types of songbirds — live in the sagebrush. It is an area where the greater sage-grouse, a bird similar in size to a duck or a small goose, lives.

Around since the last ice age, the greater sage-grouse is down to 50 percent of its previous numbers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked the 11 Western states that are home to the bird and its habitat to show how they intend to preserve its environment to avoid having it listed as an endangered species.

An endangered species listing would come with myriad restrictions — and not only for energy development and cattle grazing: It would curb recreational activities, such as hunting, which bring in billions of dollars in revenue, and it would lead to bureaucratic bottlenecks for permit applications for everything from land development to mine exploration.

In Pinedale, Wyoming, oil and gas, cattle grazing and the sage-grouse have found a way to coexist.
Jamie Tarabay / Al Jazeera America

Because of this, virtually no one, not even conservationists, wants the bird listed, but now all those opposing interests — oil and gas development, mining, hunting, grazing and environmental groups — face the same challenge: overcoming their differences and proving they can protect the bird’s environment to the government’s satisfaction.

“The Bureau of Land Management has undergone probably the largest resource management planning exercise in its history,” says Ed Arnett, a wildlife biologist with the Center for Responsible Energy Development at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “There are 15 different environmental impacts statements under development to address the threats to sage-grouse. The key is that these BLM plans and the state conservation plans all come together to conserve the bird across its range.”

The term that everyone — in North and South Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Nevada as well as southern Canadian provinces — seems to use when talking about the sage-grouse is “umbrella species.”

“We call this an umbrella species because a lot of animals use this habitat and we don’t want to see these animals petitioned,” says Noreen Walsh, a regional director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We have a legal obligation to protect the sage-grouse, but what affects the sage-grouse affects the whole sagebrush ecosystem. It’s important for ranchers. It’s important for hunters.”

During mating season, in the early spring, male sage-grouses gather in leks and strut to compete against one another before the watching females. The males puff up their chests, their vocal sacs bubbling forward, wings slightly apart, as they court the females.

They make a gobble sound similar to turkeys’. Once the females have chosen their partners, the sage-grouses leave the lek and drift into the sagebrush to mate. The birds disappear into the habitat for nesting season.

The sage-grouse is a fickle bird, says Greg Zimmerman of the Center for Western Priorities, in Denver. “They don’t like tall structures because they get preyed on by raptors, so they can’t be near oil wells. They avoid human interaction, so they steer clear of roads too.”

So basically any human development — wind farms, ranching, oil and gas exploration — sends the bird away. And in Colorado, the bird occupies federal, state and private land. A classification on the endangered species list would curb the $3 billion recreation and hunting economy and place restrictions on every kind of development.

Wyoming’s governor at the time, Dave Freudenthal, began work on protecting the sage-grouse in 2008.
Michael Smith / Wyoming Tribune Eagle / AP

Wyoming, with birds, oil, gas and cattle in one large place, is the poster child for how states can put together a plan to protect and preserve a habitat while allowing for economic development too.

On a recent weekday in Pinedale, our vehicle collects dirt as it rumbles over rocky terrain stretching deep into sagebrush country. Before us, cowboys steer their horses as they muster free-grazing cattle over a dirt scrabble road. A cattle dog brings up the rear. A few feet away, a male sage-grouse takes to the air, and in the distance an oil well glints in the sun.

Wyoming had been working on a mechanism to protect the grouse since 2008, when the governor at the time, Dave Freudenthal, issued an executive order to protect its habitat, restricting roads, pipelines and mine pits. In 2010 he updated the order, committing even more land after the Fish and Wildlife Service designated the bird a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“When you’re making decisions on such a grand scale that certainly have an impact over a large tract of land and a long time frame, you have to go with the best science at hand. We’ve felt that we’ve thoroughly vetted the science since 2007 to make solid policy recommendations,” says Paul Ulrich, senior adviser at Jonah Energy and the oil and gas industry representative on the state’s committee focused on preservation of the greater sage-grouse.

Seven years ago, when a red flag went up about the bird’s potential endangerment, not everyone was on the same page, he says.

“We had very divergent points of view from the industry, the wildlife community, the agricultural community. The one thing we were all going for was a bottom-line desire to avoid the listing,” he says.

Other states, however, haven’t been so quick to find common ground.

“Depending on the day of the week, I’m either really excited about it or really depressed about it,” says David Bobzien of the Conservation Lands Foundation, in Reno, Nevada. “There’s a lot of effort. There’s a lot of resources being expended. But people are falling into the trap of equating effort with effectiveness.”

“We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t losing sagebrush at such an alarming rate,” he says, pointing to wildfires and cheatgrass — a weed that is replacing sagebrush in many areas — as the biggest threats to the bird’s habitat.

“As I look at the state of play in Nevada, I have to wonder, is the state plan going to be sufficient in imposing restrictions? Are there really resources in place? Federal resources are critical to making sure all those projects are being done.”

Every affected state has its issues, and no two states are alike in either the status of their sagebrush habitat or the magnitude of their problems. Some, like Montana and Nevada, are dealing with mines and cattle ranchers and grazing permits. Others, like Utah and Colorado, have the oil and gas industry, and unlike in Wyoming, that road hasn’t been so smooth.

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., introduced legislation that would delay the decision to list the sage-grouse by 10 years.
Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call / Getty Images

“The oil and gas industry doesn’t want to be told where it can or cannot go. They see this setting places aside as a slippery slope,” says Jessica Goad of the Center for Western Priorities. “But they’re in a bit of a pickle here. Essentially they have two options — either we have stronger plans to stop the decline of the bird, or it can be listed as an endangered species.”

Goad says that in Colorado the oil and gas industry would prefer neither option and has chosen a third: delaying the decision, which is supposed to be made next year.

“It would be delayed and litigated for a very long time. Rep. Cory Gardner has introduced a bill that would delay the listing decision by 10 years,” Goad says.

On May 22, Gardner, R-Colo., joined with other legislators in both houses to introduce the Sage-Grouse Protection and Conservation Act, which would prevent the sage-grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act for 10 years. He is on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and according to OpenSecrets.org, the oil and gas industry was the biggest contributor to his campaign last year.

In Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert sued the federal government for state ownership of public land, including national parks and wilderness areas. Much of the bird’s habitat in in the state, however, is on private land and school trusts.

He recently claimed the bird’s population increased last year. He expanded energy development and has said any listing of the sage-grouse could cost the oil and gas industry in his state more than $41 billion. Oil and gas interests are some of his biggest political backers too.

“There are always loud voices whenever we have a natural-resource issue that’s as big and broad as this,” says Noreen Walsh from the  Fish and Wildlife Service. “What I think is significant about this is the large spectrum, from federal agencies to individual ranchers, to try and head off a listing by improving the prospects for this bird. There are always extremes, but there’s a huge middle. That’s one of the things that are very encouraging.”

Walsh points to other promising signs. In Oregon recently, ranchers signed on voluntarily to manage any threats on their land to the sage-grouse and its habitat. Tom Sharp, chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen Association’s committee on endangered species, said the sage-grouse issue is the “spotted owl of today.”

“But there’s a difference. The sage-grouse issue is the spotted owl on steroids.”

The agreement between the cattlemen and the Fish and Wildlife Service is being replicated across eastern Oregon, which is home to some of the best remaining habitat for the bird. It’s also home to vast cattle-grazing areas, which bring in over $600 million for the state. The ranchers, too, are learning to coexist, says Sharp. “What’s good for the bird is also good for the herd.”

For Ulrich, a fourth-generation Wyoming resident and an avid hunter, interest in preserving the sage-grouse ecosystem extends far beyond maintaining the environment for him and for future generations. “From our standpoint, we have the biggest to lose. We have the predominance of habitat, and most of our economy is based on oil and gas development. From that standpoint, our participation in the decision was the only decision, because we had so much at stake,” he says.

“We [the oil and gas industry] fuel the economy. A healthy percentage of the taxes paid in Wyoming are paid by oil and gas and mining. That keeps the taxes low. We have no personal income tax, a low sales tax, very high quality of living.”

Wyoming, he says, has done its job in protecting the environment in anticipation of the decision whether to list the sage-grouse. He only hopes the other states will also be ready in time.  

The decision will be made in September 2015. If just one of the 11 states fails to find a compromise between its industries and its conservationists, all of them will have to face a tougher future. 

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