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BLM Reverses Course by Proposing Key Sage Grouse Habitat for Oil and Gas Development
“BLM’s own experts recommended that Priority Habitats be closed to future oil and gas leasing, and prescribed strong, science-based restrictions for the leases that already existed,” said Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “With this policy reversal, the BLM not only opens up Core Areas to expanded oil and gas leasing under the new Lander Field Office Resource Mangement Plan, but also proposes to lease these parcels with weaker protections than its own scientists have recommended.”
According to Acting Associate State Director Larry Claypool, BLM has deferred 2,800 oil and gas lease parcels in recent years in Wyoming, two-thirds of them in sage grouse Core Area habitats. BLM statistics indicate that the acreage of oil and gas leases in Core Areas has fallen from almost 5 million acres to less than 2.5 million acres between 2008 and 2014.
According to the Environmental Assessment for the lease sale, “The relatively subdued pace of new leasing in Core Areas is the direct result of the application of the BLM’s sage-grouse leasing screen, whereby many parcels in recent sales have been deferred from sale until the sage-grouse RMP amendments and ongoing plan revisions are completed.”
The Lander sage grouse parcels are leased under protective stipulations that are too weak to protect sage grouse, according to the science. No Surface Occupancy will be allowed within a 0.6-mile buffer around leks, or breeding and dancing sites, but a recent scientific study set the range of appropriate lek buffers between 3.1 to 5.0 miles around the lek. In addition, up to 5% surface disturbance would be allowed as a result of drilling impacts, almost double the 3% disturbance limit published in scientific studies.
“It is unfortunate that the Wyoming BLM is reversing course on protecting crucial sage grouse habitat” said Matt Sandler of Rocky Mountain Wild, “The scientists have firmly stated that leasing in core habitat will further impair recovery of the species, and we fear this is a sign of what’s to come.”
Some 37,138 acres of sage grouse Core Areas in the Lander Field Office are slated for the auction block under this Environmental Assessment. Many parcels in the same document are being deferred from the federal lease sale because they are in key sage grouse habitats in the Bighorn Basin or the High Plains district, where sage grouse plan amendments are still underway.
Currently, the BLM is revising all of the land-use plans across the entire range of the greater sage grouse, to put stronger sage grouse protections in place with the express purpose of addressing the major threat posed by oil and gas development and the “inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms” cited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a prime justification for finding the species “warranted, but precluded” for Endangered Species Act protection in 2010.
“Sage grouse were found to warrant protection in 2010, and their rangewide population today is much smaller,” Molvar concluded. “If sage grouse Priority Habitats get opened up for oil and gas leasing across the West, it’s a disaster for sage grouse conservation. This lease sale is one small step for the oil industry, and one giant leap toward sage grouse ESA listing.”
Attached is a BLM graph excerpted from the Wind River – Bighorn Basin August 2015 Lease EA displaying the acreage of Sage Grouse Core Areas in Wyoming under lease for fluid mineral development since the onset of the sage grouse planning process.