A storm gathers over the Powder River Basin. As a team meets to revise the sage-grouse core area map, conservationist Erik Molvar worries that grouse in the Powder River Basin have entered an "extinction vortex." (Jeremy Buckingham/Flickr Creative Commons)

If Wyoming stops protecting greater sage grouse near Rawlins it will jeopardize “one of the three biggest nesting concentrations in the West,” an advocate told the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team recently.

The team is considering removing protections from more than 60,000 acres west of Rawlins and south of Interstate 80. But such remapping of greater sage grouse core-area zones would bifurcate world-class habitat, Erik Molvar of WildEarth Guardians told the team in Lander on April 15.

“This general area has historically been recognized as one of the three largest nesting and breeding areas in Wyoming and therefore in the world,” Molvar told the panel. “One of the biggest nesting concentrations in the state is being gerrymandered out of existence. It’s on the same path as the Powder River Basin [population] which is headed to extinction.”

Molvar’s interests are embroiled with those of energy companies, ranchers and others as the sage grouse team makes a five-year update of Gov. Matt Mead’s grouse-protection executive order and core area map. As the grouse team’s mapping group meets in Buffalo today, Molvar said he would advocate for sage grouse in the adjacent Powder River Basin where a new study warns of a looming “extinction vortex.”

The extinction warning came in a report “Greater Sage-Grouse Population Dynamics and Probability of Persistence” that was submitted to Pew Charitable Trusts. Edward O. Garton, emeritus professor at the University of Idaho, Moscow, was the lead author of the report, first released to Environment & Energy Daily in a story that brought an immediate challenge by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

The Pew report identified the Great Plains management zone, including the Powder River Basin, as a problem. “Individual populations all declined more than 50 percent in the last six years,” the report said, “with both the Dakotas and Powder River Basin declining more than 70 percent raising a concern that they may be dropping into an extinction vortex.”

Mead’s executive order seeks to avoid extinction and much more as Wyoming and 10 other western states strive to prove that federal protection of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act isn’t warranted. As the Wyoming team redraws lines on the core-area map for the first time in five years, it also rewrites the governor’s executive order, adding detail. Last week the team posted its latest version of new language, seeking public comment through May 20.

A map shows areas where sage grouse core areas may be revised. Changes may focus on three main areas southwest of Pinedale, west of Rawlins, and in the Powder River Basin. The Sage Grouse Implementation Team meets in Buffalo this week. (Courtesy Wyoming Game & Fish)

Protecting Pinedale Anticline grouse

While the team’s process has so far led to recommendations to cut core area protection west of Rawlins, in part because of an energy transmission corridor the governor mapped there, not all industry requests are being embraced. Some Sage Grouse Implementation Team members resisted removing protections along the flanks of the existing Pinedale Anticline gas field in Sublette County. Development has caused grouse declines to the point the BLM is deciding how those losses might be offset.

“I’m dead set against this [removal],” SGIT member Brian Rutledge told a mapping subcommittee that considered the anticline flanks. The BLM said this spring strutting grouse numbers in one anticline-area breeding complex have dropped more than 30 percent compared to reference areas. The number of active breeding leks in another anticline complex also has dropped beyond a trigger point that calls for action.

“I see no reason to put those leks under further assault when we know we’ve already stepped through those thresholds,” SGIT member and Audubon representative Rutledge said.

While core-area maps depict where development will be restricted, they’re only half the governor’s executive order. SGIT members also seek to protect grouse by revising the language of the executive order itself. In the process, some grazing activities previously considered inconsequential could receive closer scrutiny and regulation.

The construction of towering windmills that water ranchers’ stock, for example, should not be allowed close to breeding leks, said SGIT chairman Bob Budd, director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust. They give raptors an advantage in hunting greater sage grouse. “You put a post for an eagle to sit on within [six tenths of a mile] of a lek, [and] you’ve made a feeding station,” he said.

The SGIT chairman also called for changing the way developers offset disruption from unavoidable drilling, mining and other activities. As written, the executive order would keep in place a hierarchy that calls first for avoidance of sage grouse habitat, then the minimization of impacts and finally mitigation, Budd agreed.

But he called for new language that would make it easier for that mitigation to be conducted off-site if “avoidance” and “minimization” strategies are not enough. “We want to be permissive to say there’s not a hierarchy,” when it comes to mitigation, Budd said. “What is best for the bird ought be the final outcome,” he told his team.

Mitigation banking

Such a change in mitigation hierarchy could promote the use of off-site sage grouse mitigation banks. Gov. Mead promoted that concept in March when he announced the “first-in-the-nation” greater sage grouse conservation bank through the Sweetwater River Conservancy centered on the private 55,000-acre Pathfinder Ranch.

“Developers will be able to purchase credits that will enable continued [development] in Wyoming,” Gov. Mead said in March. “Sage grouse can be protected without being listed,” as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Through the “bank,” developers who disturb grouse habitat would pay for conservation at Pathfinder and nearby. In some instances the money would improve Pathfinder-area habitat, in others it would prevent development on the ranchland itself. Without mitigation banking “ranches would become ranchettes,” Jeff Meyer, managing partner of the conservancy said at the March announcement.

A Game and Fish biologist inspects a raven’s nest in an abandoned structure in sage grouse habitat. Wyoming’s effort to conserve sage grouse includes programs to remove human support for ravens, which steal sage grouse eggs. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects ravens, however, and permision is needed before the birds can be harassed or poisoned or their nests destroyed. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The ongoing mitigation process at the Pinedale Anticline was on view April 16 in Pinedale when stakeholders interested in grouse protection brainstormed with the BLM. Discussion ranged from erecting road signs to warn motorists of grouse on highways to reducing humans’ inadvertent aid to ravens, a known theft of grouse eggs. One proposal would ban hunting of grouse.

The Anticline conservation effort is being made under the federal environmental impact statement process that required reaction to grouse declines. That’s the same process the state would let govern development of the neighboring Normally Pressured Lance field that SGIT still must address.

Jonah Energy owns the NPL leases and has proposed developing 141,000 acres at four times the density Wyoming core-area designation would allow. The mapping subcommittee split 6-4 in favor of extending the core to cover NPL, but the full SGIT has yet to agree. At issue is protection of a winter concentration area where 1,500 to 2,000 birds from across Sublette County flock, and the lease rights Jonah holds in the undeveloped NPL where it plans to drill 3,500 wells.

Rutledge said he’s been told Wyoming will let the BLM environmental review govern NPL development, meaning Wyoming’s core area would not be extended across the field. Gov. Mead will decide.

Although he voted for core-area protection at NPL, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife field supervisor for Wyoming said he is more interested in protections than labels. “Whether or not it’s in core I feel it’s a moot point as long as there are regulations and restriction on that area,” Mark Sattelberg said in an interview.

His agency decides by October whether economically dire endangered species protections will be imposed nationwide. “If we could add it to core, I would,” Sattelberg said of NPL. “There’s got to be some protection in that area. It’s very important ecologically.”

Meanwhile, SGIT continues its refinement of executive order language in an effort to tell the story of Wyoming sage grouse conservation and give clear direction. It’s rare for a governor’s executive order to be fashioned in such an inclusive fashion, said Budd, whose team has 23 members and is supported by local working groups statewide.

“It will be a recommendation,” he said of SGIT’s changes. “As an executive order, this is not the normal process.”

The order that Mead ultimately revises, Rutledge said, “carries the force of law.”

As SGIT winds up its work in coming weeks, the Pew report’s exhaustive statistical analysis will have to compete for public attention with residents’ comments, industry requests and even lek observations from 2015, including those from the state’s sage grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen. Last week he found a new 50-male lek.

“The verbal reports I’m getting from the field and my own observations and [those in] some of the surrounding states suggest we’ve got some very noticeable increases this year,” he told the SGIT recently. “We’re very confident on a broad scale we’re going to show significant increases.”

Powder River Basin photo courtesy Jeremy Buckingham/Flickr Creative Commons.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. As least we can agree the that the wild earth guardians don’t have a clue what the term vortex means.

    Paul Cook
    Wilson, WY

  2. Why do we bother to have a legislature if the Governor can make an executive order that has the force of law. The Wyoming Constitution never mentions the term executive order. In the past, Wyoming citizens have successfully sued a Governor who made an executive order that exceeded state law. The Constitution does require that the Governor faithfully execute the law. There is no state law that establishes sage grouse core areas. Article I, section 7 even prohibits a governor from taking arbitrary action without settled law. Bob Budd wants to prohibit windmills which might be on private property. Executive orders are supposed to be used to manage state agencies not private property. Requiring a rancher to replace a functioning windmill with an expensive solar powered well is a considerable hardship for the small advantage a golden eagle gains from a perch. Especially considering we still allow people to hunt sage grouse. The off site mitigation idea could also be described as pay to play or more simply as extortion. The cost of mitigation may be very high in relation to the activity permitted. A good reporter would at least attempt to provide a voice for those that are critical to the sage grouse executive order. This process does not follow the Administrative Procedures Act or allow affected landowners due process.

    Doug Cooper
    Casper, Wyoming

  3. Good article. Perhaps in this area of the Powder River Basin it may be too late and the sage grouse is already gone. If not extinct, their numbers are so few that I can not see them coming back. An
    in situ uranium mine close to our ranch has gleefully said that there is not a sage grouse within 20 miles and yet we used to have two leks on our property. A number of types of wildlife have been going down for years, roughly matching the increasing mineral development in the area. This last
    year, for the first time ever we have had to stop hunting antelope. For this area, the sage grouse is gone but I hope that Wyoming is large enough that we can retain some country for them.

    L.J. Turner
    Gillette, Wyoming