Energy Companies, Environmental Groups Collaborate to Preserve Sage-Grouse Habitat in Wyoming and Beyond
Oil and gas, other energy groups, and environmental groups have come together to improve business practices in a way that will conserve the Sage Grouse population. The following content is brought to you by Energy API. It was posted on the NationalJournal.com To see the original, click here.
Carey Farmer has been working in the oil and natural gas industry for 34 years, including two decades in Alaska and in his current position as Wyoming and Utah manager for ConocoPhillips. Farmer says he’s proud to “be part of the turnaround in U.S. oil and gas production, with all of its implications for our economic and geopolitical security.” More recently, however, Farmer has added a new activity to his work responsibilities: bird watching.
Specifically, Farmer is focused on centrocercus urophasianus – better known as the sage-grouse, the largest grouse species in North America and native to both states he oversees.
With the federal government considering an endangered species listing for the sage-grouse, developing strategies to accommodate the bird is a top priority for ConocoPhillips, which has significant investments in natural gas development in the state’s Wind River Basin, as well as energy exploration projects in other parts of the state.
Concern for the sage-grouse has generated an interesting collaboration involving ConocoPhillips, other energy companies and environmental interests that could be a model for other issues and regions of the country, showing that conservation and energy development can co-exist when people work together on common sense, science-based solutions.
“It’s been an incredible example of people actually working together, putting their own interests aside to make sure they do what’s right for the state and for the species,” said Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife & Natural Resource Trust. Budd, who once worked as an oil field roustabout and has degrees in range management and animal science, leads a team that is implementing Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s executive order on energy development and the sage-grouse. “We’ve got people who came to the first meeting absolutely adamant that they were not going to participate,” Budd said, “and now they’re some of the best advocates and habitat providers for the species.”
Cooperation has bloomed in advance of an expected decision on the sage-grouse listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in September. An endangered species listing would impose strict limits on any activities that would disturb sage-grouse habitat. The potential effects on energy development are clear, but the designation also could affect ranching, tourism, mining, construction of new power transmission lines and other infrastructure in Wyoming and the 10 other Western states where the birds live.
For years, energy companies including ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil, Encana and Noble Energy have worked with conservationists and elected officials to preserve sage-grouse habitat in Wyoming and beyond. According to Tim Griffiths, national coordinator of the Sage-Grouse Initiative, Wyoming is home to 40 percent of the bird’s population because the state still has vast swaths of undeveloped land.
“It’s the Wild West, it’s not broken, Humpty Dumpty hasn’t fallen off the wall,” said Griffiths. “Because Wyoming also happens to be one of the richest states in oil and gas resources and agriculture, potential listing of sage-grouse has more ramifications there than anywhere.”
In 2010 the Sage-Grouse Initiative was launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in partnership with a number of other public and private institutions, all with the goal of preserving sage-grouse habitat.
The NRCS works closely with Intermountain West Joint Venture, an organization that includes state officials, conservation groups and energy interests. In addition, the Western Governors’ Association has a task force on sage-grouse, co-chaired by Wyoming’s Gov. Mead.
ConocoPhillips’ efforts revolve around familiarity with the bird’s needs and ensuring that energy development is sensitive to them. Farmer knows all about the picturesque bird’s life cycles and the type of habitat it seeks, especially the “lek” – bare ground surrounded by dense shrubs – where they perform spring courtship rituals and build nests.
“They’re a nice-looking bird,” said Farmer. “I’ve learned an awful lot about them.”
In January, ConocoPhillips announced a $1 million donation to protect sage-grouse habitat across the West, with a major focus on Wyoming. Farmer explains that the challenges in each state are different. In Oregon, for example, the encroachment of juniper trees into sagebrush makes it hard for the birds to reproduce. In Nevada, wildfires are a big problem. The ConocoPhillips grant will help remove trees and suppress fires.
In Wyoming, fragmentation of habitat is the big challenge. As ranchers sell their land to housing developers who divide it into smaller plots, sage-grouse habitat is being destroyed. ConocoPhillips’ million-dollar donation is helping to buy up conservation easements on land to conserve as open space. The 2014 Sage-Grouse Inventory published by the Western Governors Association noted that in all $100 million has been allocated for habitat preservation in Wyoming, through the state government and other partners.
In all, 4.4 million acres of habitat across the 11 states have been protected thanks to the efforts and funding of partners including ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil, state and federal governments, cattlemen’s associations and land trusts and conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy. In Wyoming, the loss of habitat was curbed by two-thirds compared to what otherwise might have resulted without the conservation efforts, according to the Sage-Grouse Initiative’s February 2015 assessment. Since 2005 the Wyoming legislature has appropriated at least $7.9 million for sage-grouse preservation. And the benefits go beyond sage-grouse – the habitat also hosts scores of other species, including migratory mule deer.
Along with protecting wide swaths of sage-grouse habitat, energy companies are also adapting their operations to avoid undue habitat fragmentation or destruction. Gov. Mead’s executive order limits oil and natural gas facilities within “Core Areas” – areas the state has identified as high-quality sage-grouse habitat – to one well pad per square mile. Horizontal drilling maximizes the number of wells that can be drilled from each pad while minimizing surface disturbance.
Farmer noted that ConocoPhillips is also working with wildlife experts to understand exactly how they can reduce the impact on sage-grouse in the Wind River Basin.
“We’re doing a lot of monitoring to understand where the birds are at what time of year, so we take steps to avoid disturbing them,” he said. “We put little radio backpacks on the birds to track them around our fields. We discovered six leks that no one knew were there. With this information we’re able to avoid the bird pretty effectively.”
These efforts advance the concerns of a broad group of interests, he said.
“Everybody wants to have abundant wildlife populations – that’s a real broadly shared value,” said Farmer. “All those folks also want to have good jobs and adequately funded state and local governments, and energy security. We all have very, very similar values.”
NCRS Chief Jason Weller calls the collaboration “a tremendous success story.”
“It’s never been done at this scale,” Weller said. “This is something they’ll be writing history books about. To be witnessing this unfold right now is tremendously rewarding.”