A male greater sage grouse struts at a lek in Sublette County in 2015. Gov. Matt Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper have written Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that changes to widespread federal conservation plans are not needed. (Leine Stikkel)

PINEDALE — Wyoming Bureau of Land Management biologist Dale Woolwine sees the fractured greater sage grouse eggs in a ground-level nest and figures out the story pretty quickly.

As he picks up one of the shells on this ridge west of Pinedale, he observes that it was broken open in its middle. This is a strong clue that egg, and several others tucked under a sagebrush a little more than a foot high, was consumed last year by a predator. If a chick had hatched from it, the bird would have broken into the world from the large end of the egg leaving a different fracture pattern, Woolwine says.

The biologist found the failed nest halfway through a day during which he counted strutting grouse on three breeding leks, checked a fence line for bird strikes and stalked two radio-collared hens. He collected dirt samples seeking to learn why grouse peck the ground in winter and downloaded months of location data from one of the hens he tracked.

Woolwine made his productive field excursion across dozens of miles of BLM country near here that will be one focus of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team this week, which meets tomorrow in Douglas. The group will attempt to resolve a conflict over development of the proposed 3,500-well Normally Pressured Lance gas field and protection of a greater sage grouse “winter concentration area” that’s unequalled anywhere in the West.

This Game and Fish Department map shows the proposed NPL field, outlined in red at the bottom left, along with the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields, in red to the top right. Other outlines indicate winter concentration areas and the proposed expansion of Gov. Matt Mead’s core-area protective zone. The troubled Yellowpoint breeding complex that covers some 35,000 acres across the northern part of the proposed NPL field is not depicted. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

As it recommends changes for the first time in five years, SGIT may consider:

  • A 25 percent drop in the number of strutting grouse in the Yellowpoint breeding complex that covers 34,880 acres of the Normally Pressured Lance field. The decline, caused by nearby gas fields, has prompted the BLM to take corrective action even before NPL development begins.
  • A review of scientific literature that says wintering greater sage grouse are easily disturbed and range far from their seasonal breeding and nesting grounds. One grouse in the Pinedale area set a Wyoming record by migrating 52 miles.
  • An article in the journal Science that documents the unraveling of the sagebrush ecosystem due to energy development and other factors. It says regional planners can’t see the larger picture.
  • Continued efforts by the BLM to lease acreage for oil and gas development in NPL and winter concentration areas nearby. The federal agency seeks comments through May 22 on a proposal to lease 5,845 new acres in NPL and another 480 acres adjacent to the NPL where the surface landscape is protected by a conservation easement.

First crack at core-area extension

Tomorrow, the Sage Grouse Implementation Team will consider for the first time whether to recommend extending Gov. Matt Mead’s core-area protection zone across the proposed 141,000-acre NPL that Jonah Energy wants to develop. Subcommittees have split over the extension, with Jonah Energy dead-set against it.

Those proposing expanded protection seek a safeguard for 1,500 to 2,000 grouse found in winter concentration areas in and near NPL. Nowhere in the 11 western states where greater sage grouse roam has a similar winter concentration been found. Core-area protection limits development to one well pad per 640 acres, a quarter the density Jonah Energy seeks.

Jonah Energy has said science will guide the EIS process and protect the bird as the BLM uses it to analyze Jonah’s development plan. That analysis could take another year and a half. The company has said core-area restrictions would make NPL development uneconomical.

A foundation for the SGIT decision may be based on when the BLM issued NPL-area leases. That occurred before Gov. Dave Freudenthal  imposed the core-area map by executive order in 2008. NPL-area lease owners at the time — EnCana — had proposed field development six months before Freudenthal’s order. As such, NPL shouldn’t be impinged by new regulations, some say.

The NPL development plan, however, has mushroomed since it was first proposed. In 2008 EnCana sought only 84 wells on 70,000 acres, a density far below what would be imposed by core-area standards. EnCana withdrew that plan in 2010 and submitted a new one in 2011 seeking 41 times more wells — 3,500 altogether.

That 2011 proposal also covered twice as many acres. The private investment group TPG created Jonah Energy and bought NPL leases and the producing Jonah gas field for $1.8 billion in 2014.

BLM biologist Dale Woolwine and a colleague discovered sites where wintering grouse peck at dirt, documenting a winter activity known as geophagia. At dawn one day last week south of Pinedale, he enters a count of strutting grouse in his notebook. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

In addition to that leasing history, the governor’s sage grouse team also may consider new information detailing winter habits, including documentation of the winter concentration areas in the proposed NPL. Biologists, including Woolwine, in 2010 sought winter protection but were told they needed more data. They’re back with maps and counts of 1,500 to 2,000 wintering birds. They discovered geophagia — dirt-eating by wintering grouse — and found and charted locations of new breeding leks.

The SGIT panel hopes to wrap up work by the end of the month. Gov. Mead will finalize the executive order and core-area map updates later. The goal is to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep greater sage grouse off the threatened or endangered species list this September.

Extending Mead’s core-area protection across NPL — essentially trimming the Jonah Energy plan by three quarters — could satisfy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, its Wyoming field supervisor said in a recent interview. Mark Sattelberg is a member of the 23-person SGIT and has voted to protect NPL habitat.

“If they [SGIT] decided it would be core, we probably [would] go along with that,” Sattelberg said of his agency. “Those restrictions are probably sufficient,” to protect the winter concentration areas.

A Jonah Energy spokesman didn’t respond to several requests for comment.

Bad news from the Yellowpoint complex

Absent Wyoming core-area protection, the BLM would govern NPL development through its EIS process. That EIS process was used to approve the neighboring Pinedale Anticline gas field where monitoring shows that grouse are in distress in two breeding complexes.

This year’s annual review shows a 25 percent drop in the number of strutting grouse in the nine-lek Yellowpoint breeding complex that spreads across the proposed NPL and neighboring Pinedale Anticline gas fields. Approximately 34,880 acres of the Yellowpoint complex lie inside NPL, the BLM said in a written response to questions.

The grouse decline crossed a BLM trigger point requiring an effort to staunch the loss. Today, the BLM finds itself in the odd position of considering a request to develop sage grouse habitat in an area where sage grouse numbers have declined beyond the agency’s own impact thresholds.

So, in addition to the winter concentration conflict, NPL-area grouse  are also challenged in the other three seasons. The BLM couldn’t say how the Yellowpoint decline might affect Jonah’s proposed development of the NPL field. “An Environmental Impact Statement will be developed for the proposed NPL project because of the potential for significant impacts,” the BLM said. “Any impacts on sage-grouse will be analyzed and disclosed in the NPL EIS.”

This BLM map shows in purple the parcels in and around NPL the agency seeks to lease in November. Developed wells (red dots) surround greater sage grouse winter concentration areas just southeast of Big Piney where Jonah Energy wants to drill 3,500 wells. (Bureau of Land Management)

The relationship between the Yellowpoint breeding complex and winter concentration areas that overlap it is unknown. “We do not have enough data to make a definitive conclusion as [to] the relationship of sage-grouse attending Yellowpoint leks and sage-grouse that use the Alkali Creek winter concentration area,” BLM said. A similar mystery exists regarding any link between geophagia and some winter concentration areas where dirt-eating has not been documented.

The BLM hasn’t finished selling leases in the NPL, even as it examines Jonah Energy’s development plan. It is seeking comments on a planned November sale of oil and gas leases that includes another 5,845 acres in the proposed NPL. That proposed November sale would withhold leasing 72,000 acres in southwest Wyoming while BLM protective stipulations are upgraded.

But the sale would include 480 acres adjacent to the NPL where the surface landscape is guarded by a conservation easement granted to the Wyoming Land Trust. A note on the lease proposal urges cooperation with the conservationists. Several of the other parcels in Sublette County are in mapped winter concentration areas outside the core-area protective zone. A public comment period will end May 22.

Grouse are sensitive

“Researchers have stressed the overall importance of wintering areas to sage-grouse because sage-grouse rely solely on sagebrush for nutrition during the winter months,” a new review of 15 wintering grouse studies says. Grouse return to places “that are small relative to overall annual use areas,” Holly Copeland of The Nature Conservancy and Dr. Matthew Holloran of Wyoming Wildlife Consultants wrote. The Wyoming Outdoor Council provided the review paper (scroll to end of article to read the review) titled Literature Review of the Science on Wintering Grouse Ecology and Anthropogenic Influences, to WyoFile.

Copeland and Holloran said the longest recorded seasonal migration of a greater sage grouse in Wyoming was in the Pinedale area — measured at 52 miles. “…[P]rotecting sagebrush habitats associated with leks will not ensure that year-long habitat requirements are met for migratory populations of sage grouse,” the paper said. The governor’s core-area zones were mapped on that principle, however — around leks but not winter concentration areas.

Mead’s sage grouse team seeks to set standards for protecting winter concentration areas as it recommends refinements in the executive order. Such restraints, yet to be written and vetted by the team, could have impacts on industry. Biologists have repeatedly warned about industry’s impacts to grouse.

“Lacking data for a specific threshold, authors repeatedly caution managers to avoid or greatly minimize disturbances in wintering areas…” the Copeland review said. One paper calls for saving big sagebrush, leaving large areas undisturbed and constraining human activity “to the greatest extent feasible.”

BLM biologist Dale Woolwine and colleague Kyle Hansen collect dirt from a place greater sage grouse were photographed pecking at the ground last winter. The sample, along with another from nearby, may reveal what draws the birds to the area and causes dirt-eating or “geophagia.” (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

As Wyoming seeks to refine its greater sage grouse protective plan, an April 24 article in the journal Science says regional conservation efforts are frequently myopic.

“…[H]orizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing are transforming millions of hectares of the Great Plains into industrialized landscapes,” author Brady W. Allred and others wrote. Despite economic benefits, “policy and regulation give little attention to trade-offs in the form of lost or degraded ecosystem services,” said the assistant Professor of Rangeland Ecology at the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation in Missoula.

“It is the scale of this transformation that is important, as accumulating land degradation can result in continental impacts that are undetectable when focusing on any single region,” the article says. “With the impact of this transformation on natural systems and ecosystem services yet to be quantified at broad extents, decisions are being made with few data at hand.”

A thousand grouse take flight

Wildlife biologist Woolwine and his colleague Joshua Hemenway were checking fences for bird strikes in January, 2013, when they saw something unusual — “lots of trails coming into exposed dirt,” Woolwine said. “We kind of assumed [what] was going on – they were eating dirt.”

Trail cameras later confirmed the activity. Woolwine and others used aerial photographs showing “white soil,” plus flight data from grouse collars to find other geophagia sites. He stopped at one such site last week to collect dirt in the hopes an analysis will reveal why greater sage grouse peck the ground there.

“This could be driving winter concentration of birds,” perhaps attracting them because of salinity or needed minerals, Woolwine said. Other factors — including the simple crowding of birds driven from neighboring gas fields — could add to the build-up.

Biologists can tell by how this grouse egg cracked open that it was likely eaten by a predator, such as a raven. Had the sage grouse chick hatched successfully, it would have broken out of the large end of the shell, not the middle. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

But Woolwine wasn’t first on the trail of the wintering birds. In 2005 Game and Fish biologist Dean Clause helicoptered over a winter concentration area expecting nothing in the white blanket below.

“It didn’t look like what we typically know where grouse winter,” he said. “We were just ferrying from one site to another, maybe a couple hundred feet in the air.”

But Clause spied “a gob of tracks.” They made snake-like patterns – beaten-down trails in the snow weaving between the sagebrush bushes. “Why don’t we drop down and take a closer look,” he told the pilot.

Birds began to flush. Dozens and dozens. The pilot hovered for a while, rotating 360 degrees as birds took flight from all points of the compass below.

“It was one of those flocks of 1,000 birds, if not more,” Clause said. The sight, he said, “is one thing that will stick with me forever.”

 

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. Once again I applaud Angus for his reporting skills. In regards to the future of sage-grouse it is my belief that, until we understand the habitat, from a landscape scale, we will not be able to adequately protect the bird or enhance the habitats it relies on. We continue to piecemeal the protections, one small area at a time, when the birds require great expanses of land to survive. The “report” mentioned helps to identify the very heart of the problem. Also, what never seems to be include are the impacts we have already seen to sage-grouse and other wildlife on a landscape scale from the impacts of existing development – how many sage-grouse leks have been lost? How many birds have been displaced by this development in the Jonah and Anticline gas fields. The information is available but we do not examine it in depth to aid in illustrating how much damage has been done in the Upper Green River Basin. Throw in the Big Piney-LaBarge development and perhaps one could start to see a larger picture.

    We have an extremely important resource here. Many don’t want to acknowledge it, but the Upper Green River Basin should be given more credence from a national perspective, and this has been identified in previous mapping efforts. In my opinion, our efforts, while exemplary, are not enough to provide the habitat stability that this bird and the other sagebrush obligates need in this landscape.

    Dan Stroud
    Pinedale, WY