By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com
The Bureau of Land Management on Friday auctioned oil and gas leases on 23,626 acres of greater sage grouse habitat in the Golden Triangle, home to the highest concentration of grouse in the world.
Ten Golden Triangle parcels sold in the online auction last week, earning the BLM $404,183.85 — revenue that will be shared with the state of Wyoming. The leases sold from a low of $2 an acre, the minimum bid, to a high of $38. Buyers purchased the rights to explore for and develop oil and gas in their leased parcels — though their activities may be restricted by sage grouse and mule deer conservation stipulations.
The sale became the subject of controversy last week when the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Audubon Rockies office sent an “emergency letter” to Gov. Mark Gordon asking him to intervene, arguing that the BLM had failed to disclose critical information in its environmental review and that the habitat in question was too valuable to endanger.
The Golden Triangle covers thousands of acres of pristine rolling sagebrush country between Farson, South Pass and Big Sandy. It is the site of groundbreaking greater sage grouse research dating back to 1952. More than 800 male grouse can strut on Golden Triangle mating grounds, known as leks, every spring, the two organizations wrote in their letter.
Gordon declined to ask for a postponement, citing the existing protective measures he said even Audubon had been part of crafting. Brian Rutledge, who signed the letter for Audubon, has worked with the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team since its inception and helped craft the regulatory regime that manages development in core sage grouse habitat, including in the Golden Triangle.
“I considered the comments that I received related to the leases that were up for sale this week,” Gordon said in a statement. “I also considered all of the analysis and the established policies related to [mule deer] migration and sage grouse management.
“After that consideration, I am not asking for any additional deferrals,” or postponement of lease sales, his statement read. “Wyoming has been leading in sage grouse management for more than a decade now and one of our hallmarks has been stability and predictability for all involved.
“I want to stay the course at this time and continue with the process and protections we have for core sage grouse areas — the stipulations,” his statement read. “These were established with broad support including from Audubon and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s biologists, as well as the energy industry and ranchers.”
Although Gordon wants to “stay the course,” that’s not what the federal government has done, Rutledge told WyoFile. “It’s a sad day for conservation,” he said Friday as the leases in the Golden Triangle, “the mother load” of grouse, were being sold and bought.
Wyoming developed its conservation plan, known as the core-area strategy, to protect sage grouse strongholds and divert leasing and development elsewhere. In concert with federal agencies, the pledge by all to prioritize leasing outside of core habitat allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 to determine that greater sage grouse were “not warranted” for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Listing greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered would have brought significant restrictions on development in the sagebrush sea, limiting drilling, roadbuilding, even livestock grazing.
The pledge to lease outside core habitat, along with other factors, constituted the “regulatory certainty” the Fish and Wildlife Service needed to reach its “not warranted” conclusion. But that prioritization went out the window under the Trump administration, Rutledge said.
“This is a failure to abide by that plan,” Rutledge said of the lease sales. “They’ve eliminated every factor on which the decision ‘not warranted’ was made.”
In an open letter to Gordon published today by WyoFile, Tom Christiansen, recently retired Wyoming Game and Fish greater sage grouse leader, again outlined the global value of the Golden Triangle. It is home to, among other things, a super lek.
“One of the leks in the area is one of only three in Wyoming that has exceeded a count of 300 males in recent years,” Christiansen wrote. “Several nearby leks routinely support counts of over 100 males in peak years. Compare these numbers to the average lek count in Wyoming of 20-35 males.”
Tucked up under the Continental Divide, the Golden Triangle could be a greater sage grouse lifeboat in changing times, Christiansen wrote.
“More recent research has concluded this landscape is one most likely to remain in sagebrush habitat in the West as climate change brings pressure to bear on sagebrush systems elsewhere,” Christensen wrote. “Some places simply demand unusual consideration, even under the most effective policies. This is one.”
A national industry group, along with the governor and the state’s SGIT leader Bob Budd, have said existing stipulations will safeguard the bird. “I think it’s maybe a bit of overreaction,” Budd said of the letter last week.
People are focusing on the wrong things when it comes to sage grouse protections said Pete Obermueller, president of the Wyoming Petroleum Association. Leasing does not equate to development, he said in an email to WyoFile.
“…Wyoming’s conservation plan is laser-focused on ensuring that development doesn’t occur where the activity is proven to harm the bird,” he wrote. “If an oil and gas operator leases acres inside a core area, they know full well the restrictions they face and they are signing up to meet Wyoming’s very high standards.”
Eight of the lease parcels sold in the Golden Triangle on Friday include a stipulation that development not take place within six-tenths of a mile — about 10 football fields — of the perimeter of occupied greater sage grouse leks in core areas. All 10 parcels carry timing restrictions that prohibit surface use in core areas between March 15 and June 30.
Surface use also is prohibited between Dec. 1 and March 14 in mapped winter concentration areas inside core zones and in WCAs outside core areas but used by core-area birds. Finally, the leases all are constrained by a restriction governing density of development. No more than 5 percent of a given 640-acre tract may be altered — and that area needs to account for disturbances caused by other parties and uses, the lease caveats state.
“Wyoming’s conservation strategy is so successful, in part, because it prioritizes development (not leasing) outside of core areas,” Obermueller wrote. “The Administration offering leases, and companies willing to pay for them even with sage grouse stipulations has a meaningful impact on Wyoming’s challenged revenue picture, but has very little meaningful impact on sage grouse conservation.”
Christiansen said he would be available to work with the governor and the state’s greater sage grouse team as Gordon reviews the Executive Order – Greater Sage Grouse Core Area Protection that former Gov. Matt Mead updated in 2015. Widely hailed as a novel conservation tool, the gubernatorial sage grouse order was first penned by Gov. Dave Freudenthal in 2008. It delineates core sage grouse habitat that contains less energy activity and potential from other places in an effort to direct development elsewhere.
Gordon said he plans to review and update that document, which requires state agencies to heed its conservation instructions.
“I am reviewing the executive order and look forward to issuing my own executive order to continue the legacy that has helped protect grouse habitat in Wyoming since 2007,” Gordon’s statement read. “My wife Jennie and I were one of the first Wyoming ranchers to sign candidate conservation agreements with assurances …,” a voluntary contract that reduces ranchers liability under environmental laws in exchange for following best conservation practices. “…[W]e want to make sure the bird stays protected.”
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