Study: Oil, Gas Industry Seeking to Protect Greater Sage-Grouse

Oil and gas companies are investing time, capital and human resources to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse, a large, ground-dwelling bird that lives primarily in western North America and who some wildlife protection groups say are threatened by oil and gas activity, a recent study has found.

The study, conducted by Broomfield, Colo.-based SWCA Environmental Consultants for the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), a Denver-based oil and gas industry group, found that oil and gas companies implement an average of over six conversation measures per project to protect the bird in public land operations.

In its analysis of 103 project NEPA documents, SWCA found that companies implemented 773 conservation measures, or a 6.5 percent average per project, across 68,404 square miles of habitat in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Noting that the industry has made significant efforts for many years to avoid, minimize, mitigate and reduce the impact of oil and gas activity on the sage grouse and its habitat, the report documents specific conservation measures commit to in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decisions on oil and gas project approvals.

Measures that the oil and gas industry is implementing through NEPA, which is designed to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse and other animal species, include limiting surface disturbance, or applying no surface occupancy restrictions around breeding areas, limiting activities during nesting and brood-rearing season, and strategically placing sources of noise and light to reduce disturbance.

Other measures include:

  • Locating multiple wells on a single pad and consolidating water management, hydraulic fracturing and other activities
  • Re-contouring the habitat to natural topography and re-vegetating with native seed mixtures
  • Eliminating perches for raptors or ravens that prey on sage grouse
  • Reducing noxious weeds that diminish the abundance of native plants used for food and cover
  • Reducing fugitive dust on vegetation, which can impact the health and quality of habitat and forage

“The binding commitments companies make are effective for protecting the species while enabling energy development that creates jobs, economic growth, and vital government revenue for local communities,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs of WEA, in a July 23 press release.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) currently is monitoring populations of Greater Sage-Grouse across the western U.S., and is debating whether to list the bird as an endangered species. In 2005, USFWS said it would not list the grouse as threatened, but environmental groups filed a lawsuit, and a federal judge overturned the finding two years later. In 2010, the agency said the bird warranted protection, according to the Washington Post.

The agency has until September 2015 to decide if it will list the sage grouse, which lives where sagebrush is prevalent, in 11 western U.S. states and parts of Canada, under the Endangered Species Act. The bird, the size of a chicken, is considered an indicator species for the larger sagebrush ecosystem, which is threatened by oil and gas, mining and renewable energy development, the Washington Post reported June 27.

“As the Fish and Wildlife Service determines whether to list the species, it should recognize the strong commitments companies have made under the existing regulatory framework and rethink its assumption that oil and natural gas development is a major threat,” Sgamma noted.

Wildlife conservation groups that include the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Refuge Association say that that the number of sage grouse has declined significantly over the past 100 years due to their sagebrush habitat being fragmented or destroyed.

“If this trend continues, many local groups may disappear in the next several decades, leaving the remaining fragmented population vulnerable to extinction,” the group stated on its website.

This decline has sparked moves by wildlife conservationists to restore and rejuvenate the Sage Grouse population so that they are no longer considered threatened and listing them as an endangered species is not needed, Sierra Club said on its website.

The ongoing battle to decide whether the Greater sage grouse should be listed as an endangered species has pitted conservationists against ranchers, gold miners, energy producers, and western U.S. state governments, which stand to lose billions in tax revenue and economic activity if acreage is blocked from development, exploration or use, the Washington Post reported May 11.

Earlier this summer, BLM and the state of Wyoming reached an agreement to jointly protect over 2 million acres of habitat occupied by the Greater sage grouse, the Washington Post reported June 27. The agreement marks the first state-federal deal to protect millions of acres of land from development to try and keep the Greater Sage-Grouse off the endangered species list.

Federal land managers also have approved an oil and gas project involving fracking in northeast Nevada which has been identified by state wildlife habitats as essential habitat for the Greater sage grouse, the Associated Press reported June 21. BLM determined that Noble Energy Inc.’s plan to conduct oil and gas exploration and drilling around Tabor Flats in Elko County, Nev., would not have a significant impact on the Greater sage grouse, though the project does occur within both the priority and general sage grouse habitat.


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