This Wyofile story is by reporter Angus M. Thuermer Jr. and was originally published July 1, 2014.

Gov. Matt Mead and BLM director Neil Kornze last month touted a Lander-area federal land plan they said would save greater sage grouse, allow energy development and be copied across the West.

The Lander Resource Management Plan would allow oil and gas leasing across much of 2.4 million federal acres but would restrict resulting development. To protect sagebrush landscape critical to imperiled sage grouse, energy companies would be required to use horizontal drilling to avoid surface disturbance in some areas.

Other restraints would limit disruption to one drilling pad per 640 acres in “core” sage grouse areas.” Development could happen within 0.6 miles of some critical grouse breeding “leks,” however, leading one conservation group to call it a “recipe for extirpation.”

The BLM will apply a two-mile buffer (blue circles) to sage grouse leks outside the core area (pink). Inside the core area, leks, marked by burgundy dots will have only a 0.6-mile buffer. Development in the core area, however, also will be restricted to one site per 640 acres. (BLM / click to enlarge)

Mead said Thursday the plan should show the federal government that the sage grouse does not need to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Protection could drag down the state’s mineral and agricultural industries.

“The issue for us is … what do you do on the ground to make sure the bird is not listed,” Mead said as BLM officials signed the plan. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by September 2015 whether to put the species on a protected list.

The Lander BLM resource plan is “a very positive step before [the] listing decision,” Mead said. U.S. Fish and Wildlife gave some “very strong feedback,” on Wyoming’s core-area strategy, he said. Also, “for industry, it provides great clarity.”

BLM Director Neil Kornze touted Wyoming’s core-area program, which seeks to shift development away from swaths of sagebrush habitat that cover millions of acres.

“Today we integrate our plan into the governor’s plan,” he said. “Wyoming’s definitely stepping out in this and we appreciate their leadership.”

The Lander Resource Management Plan will guide activities on federal BLM land east of the Wind River Range, protecting the historic Oregon Trail over South Pass and prohibiting energy leasing in sensitive wildlife range near Dubois. It also prevents mining on prized wildlife and recreation foothills of the Wind River Range.

Ultimately, greater sage grouse had most to gain or lose. The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation group, said the bird would lose.

“There still is a tremendous amount of oil and gas drilling in the heart of some of the best sage grouse habitat in the country,” said Randi Spivak, director of the group’s public lands program. “It misses the mark by a wide margin.”

The 0.6 mile buffer for leks is scientifically indefensible, she said. Studies show effects from drilling extend 4 miles or more.

“Those buffers are so tiny it leaves no room for these sage grouse moms and chicks to nest,” Spivak said. “This template ignores best science. It is not a template that the BLM should follow.”

The BLM could have done more, members of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said.

“There could have been more habitat permanently protected in perpetuity rather than with stipulations that can come and go,” said Ed Arnett, director of the group’s center for Responsible Energy Development. Breeding leks, “they should be protected based on science.”

The plan combines 0.6-mile lek setbacks with overall development density restrictions in core areas, Arnett said. “When you roll that together, those are reasonable.”

Seven years in the making, the plan recognizes those who live in the area, Fremont County Commission Chairman Douglas Thompson said at the signing of the BLM “record of decision” in Cheyenne at the end of June. It will “conserve the grouse with concern for the people who make a living off the land,” he said.

That element of compromise, among other factors, led the Lander-based Wyoming Outdoor Council to support the alternative that the BLM chose. “If the federal planning process did not include a heavy component of local communities, we have bad plans,” said Julia Stuble, the group’s land conservation coordinator. Industrial development will occur where appropriate, will not happen where inappropriate, she said.

“Multiple use is not for sissies,” BLM state director Don Simpson said. “Wyoming doesn’t have sissies,” Mead said. “We got it done.”

“We were proud to support the preferred alternative,” she said. “It really found some balance.”

The BLM considered several options, including a version that would have offered even more protection to the grouse and limited development further. BLM land is supposed to be managed for a variety of uses, Stuble said.

Competing interests can make compromise tough, officials said at the signing ceremony.

“Multiple use is not for sissies,” BLM state director Don Simpson said.

“Wyoming doesn’t have sissies,” Mead said. “We got it done.”

Whether the plan, and others coming across the West, will satisfy Fish and Wildlife as it decides the status of the sage grouse is uncertain. Spivak, of Biological Diversity, underscored some reasons.

“The first thing you need to do is make sure where the birds are nesting, doing their mating and dancing,” she said. “You absolutely need no disturbance in that area,” and the plan fails on that count.

Winter habitat may not be well defined and protected either, she said. One study of grouse in the Upper Green River Basin tracked some moving in winter beyond core areas to a gas field. New winter habits are still being discovered.

In January of 2013, for example, BLM employee Dale Woolwine was marking fences to prevent grouse collisions near Big Sandy when he found a flock of grouse trampling snow and pecking at the dirt.

“Soil eating by sage grouse was outside of the literature and anything mentioned by the experienced sage grouse biologists I trained with,” Woolwine said in an interview published by Wyoming Game and Fish in Wyoming Wildlife magazine. “I recognized it was something that probably hadn’t been noticed before – and certainly important.”

Since then he and others have found at least 15 such sites, some holding up to 80 birds. The purpose of the “geophagia” hasn’t been definitively determined.

Winter study of grouse habits is an ongoing task statewide, being undertaken by various regional working groups. The BLM’s Lander plan would protect winter concentration areas in core areas, it says.

Expansive and fragile, Beaver Rim will be guarded by a master leasing plan that seeks to limit deleterious effects of oil and gas development. The Lander BLM plan also prohibits leasing in some areas and requires directional drilling to preserve the landscape in others. (Scott Copeland photo)

Spivak finds uncertainty about winter habits troubling.

“If they don’t know enough about the winter habitat, they need to find out,” she said. “If you don’t know where it is, the core area strategy certainly can’t be protecting it.”

Arnett, with the Teddy Roosevelt group, agreed.

“If you have a situation of birds moving out of that [core area] does the Wyoming core strategy work?” he asked. “Winter and seasonal habitat were not necessarily addressed.”

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