A key timing restriction protecting some wintering greater sage grouse from oil and gas development doesn’t align with the imperiled birds’ use of the critical habitat, a University of Wyoming study shows.
Sage grouse generally move to winter range on Nov. 7 and stay through March 13, according to research by professor Jeff Beck and others who used data from hundreds of GPS-tagged sage grouse. But Wyoming’s restrictions on oil and gas activity in defined “winter concentration areas” start only on Dec. 1, according to Gov. Mark Gordon’s executive order protecting the bird.
The new information could lead to a revision of that executive order, members of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team said last week.
The understanding of grouse winter habits “has changed somewhat from what the assumptions were,” Beck told the team.
SGIT chairman Bob Budd agreed.
“We were using the best science available,” Budd said of the existing protective timeframe. However, “what we thought [to be correct] wasn’t right,” he said in an interview.
“Now it’s a matter of saying ‘do we need to change the way we are managing?’”
Another team member, Brian Rutledge, a consultant for Audubon , said science shows the grouse protection “has to occur earlier.”
Calling the research “big news to everybody,” he said winter concentration area protections may need to extend from November to April or May.
Good chance for change
Beck and two associates plan to refine their findings and take them to the grouse-team’s winter concentration area subcommittee. The work has not yet been published. Should the WCA subcommittee call for expanded drilling restrictions, there’s a “pretty good chance” the full SGIT would forward that to the governor, Budd said.
Gordon could then change his executive order to revise when drilling would be allowed in WCAs.
Budd’s willingness to advance new protections, “that’s a big deal,” Rutledge said. “That’s responsiveness.”
Beck, a professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, along with post-doctoral research associates Kurt Smith and Aaron Pratt, used information from 540 grouse collected between 2008-2018. All told 900,000 GPS locations made up the data set.
The researchers tracked sage grouse movements in five general areas: the Tongue/Powder River area, Bighorn Basin, Wind/Sweetwater Rivers area, Upper Green River valley and northern Red Desert.
On average the data showed that 25% of the tagged grouse arrived at wintering grounds by Oct. 10, half by Nov. 7 and 75% by Nov. 25., researcher Pratt told the grouse team. The governor’s executive order drilling restrictions, however, begin “after most birds have already arrived,” Pratt said.
The existing protections end on May 15 when only half the population has left the winter habitat, he said.
Wyoming has defined only one WCA, which is largely located in an energy field approved for drilling and fracking. The Normally Pressured Lance, or NPL gas field and the corresponding wintering area lie in southern Sublette County near the Jonah gas field.
No drilling is expected to occur there this winter, SGIT member Paul Ulrich, a representative of Jonah Energy, which owns the rights to the NPL Field, told the team.
Gordon recognized and protected the lone WCA after a biologist discovered as many as 2,000 grouse there. Gordon designated the WCA because Wyoming’s general sage grouse core-area conservation strategy did not cover the Sublette County winter refuge.
Extending the protective dates for the Sublette WCA may not be enough, Rutledge said. That’s because un-designated WCAs — defined as places where 50 or more birds flock — exist inside protected core areas as well.
But those core areas, generally delineated around habitat used in other seasons, may not have adequate winter drilling restrictions, Rutledge said.
Wyoming also should better define what activities unsettle grouse on their winter range, Budd and Rutledge said. Those potentially disruptive activities include things like snowmobiling and antler hunting.
Greater sage grouse spend an average of 94 days a year in breeding habitat, 99 days in summer habitat and about 46 days on fall transitional range. But winter is the longest single season, the UW research shows, extending for 126 days.
Last week’s discussion came as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department prepares to release its annual summary of grouse population trends, derived from counts of strutting males at spring breeding grounds known as leks. That information and similar estimates from other Western states help inform the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it monitors the struggling species for potential protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Wyoming’s core areas, WCAs and connectivity areas cover where an estimated 83% of the state’s population of birds live, according to the governor’s executive order. The designations cover about 24% of the state and are designed to encourage development elsewhere and limit the amount of surface disturbance in the protected zones.
Greater sage grouse tend to spend winter in gently rolling terrain, where sagebrush covers at least two-thirds of the landscape and is not completely covered by snow, the researchers told the team.
Rutledge said it is possible the sage grouse team could receive recommendations from its WCA subcommittee before this winter.
We corrected this article to reflect that Brian Rutledge retired from his position at Audubon last summer and is now a consultant with the group — Ed.