State sanctions drilling in sage grouse habitat
After what the state characterized as a knock-down, drag-out fight with Chesapeake Oil, it’s planning to allow drilling in a sage grouse conservation area.
The protected areas were established by executive order in 2011 in order to conserve critical sage grouse habitat, with the goal of keeping the bird off the endangered species list. The new plan modifies the protections in an area near Douglas where Chesapeake has oil and gas leases.
Under the plan, the conservation area is divided into three sections, with varying levels of protection from development. Ten percent of the area is classified as prime sage grouse habitat and is excluded from drilling activity for the next three years. Another 20 percent is subject to some restrictions on when and where drilling can happen. The rest of the area is categorized as low-quality habitat, and is mostly open to development.
Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust executive director Bob Budd characterized the deal as an exception, not a change in the rules, but many at the meeting expressed concern that it sets a dangerous precedent.
Kristi Mogen is a landowner near the conservation area. She's questioned the fairness of granting Chesapeake an allowance—and what it signals to the federal government about Wyoming's commitment to sage grouse preservation.
"Once Chesapeake gets this, why doesn't Kerr McGee get it, why doesn't the coal mines get it," Mogen says. "It's just a slippery slope. And it's time that the state said 'Chesapeake, you're here. This is our playground, you need to go by our rules. And we set this up because we do not want our sage grouse listed, so we need to abide by this."
According to a Chesapeake representative at the meeting, the company has set aside $2.8 million dollars for restoration work in currently low-quality sage grouse habitat within the Douglas conservation area.
The federal government is expected to make a final decision about whether to add sage grouse to the endangered species list in 2015.