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Powder River Basin Sage-grouse at Risk for Extirpation

March 16, 2012
Mark Salvo (505) 988-9126 x1165
In This Release
Climate + Energy, Wildlife

Friday, March 16, 2012
Powder River Basin Sage-grouse at Risk for Extirpation

Population viability study exposes problems with Core Area strategy in NE Wyoming
Contact: Mark Salvo (505) 988-9126 x1165

Additional Contact:

ErikMolvar, Wildlife Biologist, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (307) 460-8300

LARAMIE – A new study commissioned by the Bureau of LandManagement exposed major difficulties with the agency’s current approach tosage-grouse conservation in the Powder River Basin. Conservation organizations arecalling for stronger protections based on the results.

The study, authored by scientists from the University ofMontana, including eminent sage-grouse biologist Dave Naugle, indicates that anincreasing density of coalbed methane wells and conventional oil or gas wellscoupled with an outbreak of West Nile virus could cause “functionalextinction” of the Powder River Basin population. Under such a scenario,modeling predicts that of 370 active leks (sage-grouse breeding areas) known today,only 6 would remain under a scenario of continued heavy development coupledwith a West Nile outbreak.

“The sage grouse population in the Powder River Basinis the critical link between the heart of the sage grouse range in southwesternWyoming and populations in the Dakotas, Montana, and southern Canada, severalof which are already on the brink of disappearing,” said Erik Molvar,Wildlife Biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “The positionof the Powder River Basin as a critical linkage makes the area a SignificantPortion of the Range for the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.Failure to protect this populations could easily cause the Endangered Specieslisting of the grouse all by itself.”

The study estimates that 27 percent of the pre-developmentsage grouse population has already been lost as a result of heavy coalbedmethane and conventional drilling in the Powder River Basin, and predicts thatonly 39 percent of the original population will remain when the full build-outof coalbed methane wells reached 8 wells per square mile across the Basin, evenin the absence of a West Nile outbreak. The study also found that large lekswould be expected to decline by 70 percent from pre-development numbers as wellspacing reaches 4 wells per square mile, the standard density for conventionaloil and gas but only half the density of coalbed methane fields. The effect ofdrilling on sage grouse was found in the study to be strong out to 12.4 miles fromthe lek itself, indicating that larger Core Areas are warranted.

“Every new study on sage-grouse in oil and gas countryindicates that we must protect leks with increasingly larger buffers,” saidMark Salvo, Director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians.“We’ve been saying it for years: sage-grouse are a landscape species, they needlarge expanses of undeveloped sagebrush to persist.”

“This study is a wake-up call for the BLM that showsthey need to expand the sage-grouse Core Areas in the Powder River Basin,”said Molvar. “The current Core Areas in the Powder River Basin exclude thebest grouse habitat that’s actually at risk of being drilled; it’s time for theBLM to stop ducking the issue of protecting sage-grouse in this importantregion and start protecting the key habitats where oil and gas development islikely.”

West Nile virus was identified by the study as a criticalfactor in determining the persistence of sage-grouse in the Powder River Basin.Earlier studies linked the Culexmosquito, the known carrier of the West Nile virus, to coalbed methanewastewater reservoirs that provide breeding and larval habitat for the mosquitopopulation.

“There is a strong need to switch from surface disposalof coalbed methane wastewater in surface reservoirs to underground injection,so we can get rid of all that mosquito habitat that the coalbed methaneindustry is creating,” added Salvo.

The study is available from Biodiversity ConservationAlliance or WildEarth Guardians on request, and is expected to be posted on theInternet by the Bureau of Land Management today.

Other Contact
Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (307) 460-8300
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