Deal renews controversy over sage grouse protections

Oct 10, 2013

Credit Wikipedia

A deal to allow oil and gas development in a sage grouse conservation area near Douglas met considerable resistance when it was announced last month. Environmental groups said it set a dangerous precedent, and showed the state isn’t serious about keeping the bird off the endangered species list. The state said it was a necessary compromise that protects sage grouse while respecting private mineral rights.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce takes a look at tensions in the state’s sage grouse conservation strategy, five years after its implementation.

STEPHANIE JOYCE: Sage grouse are facing population declines across the west, and the goal of the core area strategy is to stop those declines, before the bird ends up on endangered species list. That would be a huge obstacle to development in Wyoming.

But there’s concern that the plan is undermined by the new deal with Chesapeake Oil in the Douglas core area. Leaving the September meeting where the deal was announced, Erik Molvar, with the group Wild Earth Guardians, didn’t mince words.

ERIK MOLVAR: The message that’s being sent by this back-room deal that’s being done in the Douglas core area to allow Chesapeake to drill even after the limits have been exceeded points to the idea that these core area protections may be simply a matter of window-dressing.

JOYCE: The deal was negotiated between the Governor’s office and Chesapeake. It splits the core area into three sections with varying levels of protection. The idea is to keep Chesapeake out of areas with good sagebrush habitat while allowing development in already disturbed areas. Molvar takes issue with that approach, but says even more concerning is the secretive nature of the deal. He says it raises questions about whether similar exceptions are being granted elsewhere in the state, under the radar.

MOLVAR: Is this a more widespread problem? We just don’t know.

JOYCE: Bob Budd was one of two state representatives involved in the negotiations. He says there’s no attempt to conceal what’s happening, but that the negotiations had to be private.

BOB BUDD: You have to look at these things in the real world. You've got proprietary information, you’ve got negotiations between multiple landowners, multiple companies... To take that to a public meeting with 24 people on the team and a hundred people in attendance would be completely… that would be grossly in error.

JOYCE: But even though there was no opportunity for input while the deal was being hammered out, Budd says they’ve been gathering feedback from concerned parties since the plan was presented. There’s no official comment period though, or even a public notice.

But the federal agency that’s responsible for deciding whether to add sage grouse to the Endangered Species list has been notified. Budd says the state has asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to review the plan. That agency couldn’t be reached to comment because of the government shutdown, and it hasn’t formally responded to the state yet. But Budd says when it does, that feedback will be incorporated.

BUDD: It is an iterative process, you take one step and look at that, then you move to the next step.

Whether the final plan will incorporate feedback from groups other than the Fish and Wildlife Service remains to be seen. At least one local landowner says she’s been shut out of the process.

But Brian Rutledge has met with both Budd and the governor to discuss the deal, and says he was pleased with the conversations. Rutledge is a member of the citizen’s advisory group on sage grouse and the executive director of Audubon Rockies. He says the ultimate test of the strategy will be whether populations recover -- and that requires strengthening data reporting requirements.

BRIAN RUTLEDGE: So that we’re able to see the impacts that we’re having and better able to judge the impacts that we’re having.

All the same, he’s not satisfied with many details of the plan, and would like to see some changes now, rather than later. But unlike Erik Molvar, who we heard at the top, he’s convinced that the exception is a one-time thing.

RUTLEDGE: As far as this discounting the entire core area process -- I think that’s kind of doomsday talk.

Rutledge says it was clear from the beginning that the Douglas core area would be a challenge. The land is mostly private, as are the mineral underlying mineral rights, and sage grouse populations were already low. But he thinks the overall sage grouse conservation strategy remains promising. Rutledge points out that industry objected to the deal with Chesapeake, and says that’s an example of the strategy working.

RUTLEDGE: It’s a lot better when they control themselves. And this is exactly what industry has been touting -- that they understand what the rules are now.

JOYCE: Some aren’t so optimistic. Molvar, with WildEarth Guardians, says the deal with Chesapeake sends a clear signal that those rules can be bent.

MOLVAR: You know, if you’re going to allow one industry to violate the core area protections, and drive those sage grouse populations down in that area that’s supposed to be protected, then why should someone else be restricted?

JOYCE: Exactly how the deal will actually impact industry expectations remains to be seen. But Rutledge says at least now it can be debated in public.

RUTLEDGE: “Radio silence isn’t going to maintain itself now. So we’ll all be working together to see that we get this right.”

JOYCE: Radio silence has been broken in this case, but the state has given no assurances that when similar situations come up in the future, they’ll be handled more transparently. And with more than 15 million acres of land inside the core areas, it’s all but guaranteed to come up again.