Sage Grouse Concerns Prompt Changes In Reclamation Regs

Jan 24, 2014

Pete Stahl and Calvin Strom examine a reclamation demo site to see if any native plants have grown back.
Pete Stahl and Calvin Strom examine a reclamation demo site to see if any native plants have grown back.
Credit Willow Belden

When energy development happens on public lands, companies have to reclaim the land. That means restoring the landscape after it’s been disturbed. But exactly what’s required varies from one part of the state to another. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports that agencies are making those rules more consistent, in hopes of helping keep sage grouse off the endangered species list.

WILLOW BELDEN: I’m standing on an open plot of land in Laramie, with Calvin Strom of the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center. He says they started trying to reclaim this site several years ago.

CALVIN STROM: I seeded it in the fall of 2011. …  But we haven’t gotten anything to grow yet.

BELDEN: Well, nothing except weeds. This site is a demo site – a place for researchers and students at the University of Wyoming to learn about reclamation. But Center Director Pete Stahl says the problems they’ve run into here, are the same problems that energy companies frequently encounter when they try to reclaim land after drilling.

PETE STAHL: There’s areas of the state of Wyoming that have a growing season the same in places in the arctic circle.

BELDEN: But there’s a bigger issue: Oil and gas reclamation requirements are not consistent across the state.

STAHL: Even a good definition of what is adequate reclamation – something as basic as that – is still up in the air a bit.

BELDEN: The Bureau of Land Management sets the rules for most oil and gas reclamation in Wyoming. But the BLM has a number of offices throughout the state. And those offices have differing rules for how to reclaim land that’s been disturbed. Stahl says that includes how to manage the soil, what types of vegetation need to be replanted, and how to monitor to make sure that reclamation was successful.

STAHL: It would be good to have more uniform re-vegetation requirements among the different field offices.

MERRY GAMPER: Where it’s inconsistent, that’s for a reason.

BELDEN: That’s Merry Gamper, who’s in charge of reclamation for BLM Wyoming.

GAMPER: We live in a very varied landscape. There is not a one-size-fits all approach to reclamation.

BELDEN: Gamper says landscapes and vegetation are different across the state, so in her view, it doesn’t make sense to have a blanket set of requirements for all areas. Most experts – including Stahl – agree that you have to take differing landscapes into consideration. But the inconsistencies bring problems, particularly when it comes to sage grouse. The University of Wyoming’s Jeff Beck is an ecosystem expert.

JEFF BECK: Energy development has been recently the most important factor contributing to the decline of sage grouse, so the reclamation of disturbed lands, like where oil and gas well pads are, could have a lot of bearing on the eventual recovery of the species.

BELDEN: In other words, good reclamation is important for keeping sage grouse off the Endangered Species List. But Pat Deibert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the inconsistencies in the BLM’s requirements make it hard to know if “good” reclamation is happening.

PAT DEIBERT: It makes it more difficult for us to determine whether or not that reclamation effort will be successful, and therefore, does it have conservation value to the sage grouse?

BELDEN: Deibert says when they make a final decision about sage grouse listing, they need a way to know whether reclaimed land can count as suitable sage grouse territory. She says concerns about sage grouse habitat being destroyed, and insufficient rules to protect habitat, were even part of the reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended listing the bird several years ago. The BLM’s Caleb Hiner says the agency is taking those concerns to heart.

CALEB HINER: We’re under an effort to have regulatory mechanisms placed into our Resource Mangement Plans to support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s listing decision for sage grouse in 2015.

BELDEN: Hiner says the goal has always been to restore vegetation to its original state. But now the BLM is planning to impose more formal rules, with sage grouse in mind.

HINER: On a practical level, what I think you’ll be looking at is more of a component to having the shrubs – in this case, sage brush predominantly – as well as the forbs and the grasses that the sage grouse rely on throughout their life cycles.

BELDEN: BLM is creating new resource management plans in some parts of the state, and amending existing plans in others. They won’t necessarily create uniform reclamation rules for the whole state. But they’ll require that when sage grouse territory is disturbed, it’s reclaimed in such a way that it becomes suitable sage grouse habitat again. And they’ll lay out the scientific justification for reclamation inconsistencies that continue to exist. The BLM has been working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with the new rules, and Pat Deibert says the changes will be a major improvement. The new plans are expected to be finalized sometime this year.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.