U.S. to Limit Petroleum Drilling on Habitat of Greater Sage Grouse


The Obama administration moved on Thursday to limit petroleum drilling and other activities on some of the wide-ranging habitat of the Sage Grouse in the American West.

The move — which includes a collection of 14 land-management plans across 10 states — stems from a determination in 2010 by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service that the bird, a potent symbol of the West known for its flamboyant courtship strut, was in need of protection. Millions of the birds once ranged across the wild prairies, but their numbers have plunged far and fast, down to 150,000 from 400,000, environmentalists estimate.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has until the end of September to determine what, if any, additional protections the grouse needs. But while many environmentalists say the bird is threatened if emergency action against industrialization is not taken soon, business interests say that adding it to the endangered species list could stifle the development of vast energy resources in Wyoming and nearby states, including natural gas fields, coal mines and wind farms.

The plans released Thursday represent an effort to balance those interests, preserving the grouse but still allowing the recreational, agricultural and industrial uses that underpin the economies of the western region.

“As land managers of two-thirds of greater sage grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving western economy,” Sally Jewell, secretary of the interior, said in announcing the plans in Cheyenne, Wyo.

The new plan would establish buffer zones around areas where male grouses gather for breeding, many of which abut or are inside oil and gas fields. It will affect about two million acres, mostly federal land, but would allow the exercise of existing rights for energy development, minerals, rights of way and other permitted projects.

The vast majority of federal lands within the most important sage grouse habitats, Interior Department officials said, have little to no potential for oil, gas, solar or wind energy development. In other priority areas, the plans would limit conventional oil and gas drilling but potentially allow for horizontal drilling that would not disturb the surface.

Several environmental groups applauded the action.

“The greater sage grouse conservation plan is a huge step in the right direction,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “that holds out the promise to save not only this beautiful bird but also hundreds of other species.”

Ken Rait, director of the United States public lands project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that the Bureau of Land Management’s plans were a significant improvement over drafts released in 2013.

“This is the B.L.M.’s best chance to protect the greater sage-grouse and its habitat,” he said, calling the grouse an indicator of the health of the West’s sagebrush ecosystem, which supports many other species.

Wind industry representatives said they were still reviewing the plans, but said wind energy was important to the fight against global warming. “Sage grouse face numerous human-induced threats including the effects of climate change, which poses the greatest threat to the species,” said David Ward, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association. “Responsibly sited wind energy, as one of the lowest-cost and most rapidly deployable carbon pollution reduction tools available today, stands poised to help save the species.”

Oil and gas executives, though, were critical of the action, saying that they would put harsh conditions on new drilling permits even on existing leases.

“The restrictions that will be put on oil and natural gas development are not based on good science and exaggerate the threat of energy development to the bird,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based petroleum industry group. “We continue to believe the states are the best place to conserve the sage grouse.”

The battle between environmentalists and those who want to develop industry has echoed the conflict over logging in Oregon in the 1990s to save the spotted owl. It has even attracted the attention of Republican lawmakers in Congress who have been trying to block the Interior Department, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, from making the designation. Their most recent effort was an amendment to the $612 billion defense policy bill that would keep the lesser prairie chicken and American burying beetle from the list as well.

The threat of the designation also set off an elaborate, multiyear frenzy of planning, negotiation and conservation efforts that included an unusual level of collaboration among government agencies, environmental organizations and business interests.

Many environmentalists have hoped that an endangered species designation would not only restrict housing, mining, ranching and hunting around breeding grounds, but also put the brakes on the fossil fuel industry in several critical states.

But many companies have joined in efforts with local officials to figure out ways to make room for industrial activities and for habitat the bird needs to reproduce. Those include companies like Chesapeake Energy limiting truck traffic in an oil field to avoid disturbing breeding and nesting habits and Shell Oil sowing seeds to grow plants that help nourish the birds and hide their chicks from predators.

Gleaned from the New York Times article dated 29 May 2015