(EnviroNews Wyoming) — Douglas, Wyoming — In late April a gloomy report was issued by Pew Charitable Trusts that claims there is a 98.7 percent chance greater sage grouse will go extinct in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin in 30 years if the current course continues.
The Powder River Basin, once the greatest hub for the species, has been ravaged by ranching and energy development which has reduced core habitat and created other environmental problems that have contributed to massive declines in bird numbers.
There were once an estimated 16,000,000 sage grouse in the West, but recent research shows the bird’s numbers have plummeted to as low as 200,000 over its 11-state range. There is a popular saying amongst environmental working groups that states, “As goes Wyoming, so goes the sage grouse,” and recent activities conducted in Douglas, Wyoming sought to save the animated bird from dying off completely in the “Cowboy State.” The question is: Will those activities have a positive effect?
At an all-day-long meeting at the Douglas Inn on May 6, 2015, officials with Wyoming Game and Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife joined members from environmental working groups, the energy industry, ranching associations and more to redraw, and in some cases carve away areas of core sage grouse habitat.
Representatives from Anadarko Petroleum Corporation were on the scene with multiple requests to eliminate habitat to make way for more of their oil and gas wells, while various other parties proposed adding turf to specific core areas.
Tom Christiansen, Sage Grouse Program Coordinator for the Wildlife Division of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department was helping to moderate the meeting and told EnviroNews in regards to the Pew Charitable Trusts report that he didn’t have a problem with the overall trajectory in the document, but said he took issue with the way many of the voluntary restoration and mitigation efforts were analyzed.
Christiansen pointed to the inherently cyclical nature of sage grouse populations and said it is too early to tell if many of the voluntary efforts being made by ranchers and working groups are doing enough to mitigate population decline.
Erik Molvar, biologist with the western non-profit environmental group WildEarth Guardians, was also in attendance and said there was a “real opportunity” for the state of Wyoming to take some of the original core areas that were axed for energy development and put them back into new core areas.
Molvar went on camera with EnviroNews USA Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry to discuss Wyoming’s ongoing dilemma. The transcript to the interview is as follows:
Emerson Urry: We’re here on EnviroNews with Erik Molvar, biologist for WildEarth Guardians. Thanks so much for taking the time to be on the show with us today.
Erik Molvar: Thanks for having me on.
Urry: So, we’re over here in Douglas, Wyoming and you’ve been over in a meeting where they are looking at redrawing these core areas for the sage grouse in the state of Wyoming. What can you tell us about that?
Molvar: Well, for years the state of Wyoming has had a core area strategy where it’s designated some of the areas that have the highest grouse concentrations for protection. But, the problem is that in the very begging they gerrymandered out a lot of the places that were the prime oil and gas drilling places so that the oil and gas industry wouldn’t have to abide by the sage grouse protections. And then as years went by, they continued to carve away at the map and take some of the core areas and make them smaller, often in response to industry proposals.
Urry: And so, there was a report that came out, I think it was about a week-and-a-half ago, that demonstrates according to the report, that there is basically a 98 percent chance that the bird is going to blink out in some of these areas in the Powder River Basin correct? What can you tell us about that?
Molvar: The report basically says that there’s a 98.7 percent chance that there’ll be less than 50 sage grouse left in the entire Powder River Basin, and 50 sage grouse is deep in the extinction vortex. Once you get that few birds, the population is basically done.
Urry: With this redrawing of the core areas, is there anything about it that’s helpful? Is it just a pure giveaway to industry? What’s going on there?
Molvar: There’s a real opportunity for the state of Wyoming and the Powder River Basin to take some of the areas that they originally took off the table to allow for oil and gas development and put them in new core areas and actually protect those birds that haven’t been protected in the past. The reason they took those areas out was for coalbed methane development, and that coalbed methane industry is basically belly up right now. So, there’s a real opportunity now to designate those prime habitats, even though they’re already partially developed, and manage those areas back to prime sage grouse habitat over time. The question is: [Does] the state of Wyoming have the guts to go ahead and do that designation and fix these problems, or is it going to continue to be full speed ahead and go ahead and allow that bird population to crash?
Urry: You know, they say Wyoming has definitely been the largest area for sage grouse in the past, and they kind of say as goes Wyoming so goes the sage grouse. What does the population look like here as a whole, and how do you see this playing out in the future?
Molvar: Wyoming has more sage grouse than any other state, but since 2007 they also have bigger sage grouse declines than any other state that has a lot of sage grouse. So, the problems here are very serious — the oil and gas threats are very serious, and we’re just starting to recognize that livestock grazing is also a serious threat here in Wyoming. So, if we can get science-based protections in place, and get core area boundary designations that makes sense for sage grouse, there’s a chance that we can turn these declines around. If not, we’re going to continue to see declines and the bird is going to head further toward extinction.
Urry: Now speaking of ranching, we’ve been covering the sage grouse issue in the state of Idaho, where energy development is in kind of in its infancy there, and ranching is the main problem that they’re discussing. In a lot of these areas we kind of see they try to slap a happy face on the ranching industry. How big of a problem is it here in Wyoming? You know obviously, energy is a huge factor here. I think Wyoming is second in the nation as far as overall energy output, but how does ranching actually play into the larger issue at hand?
Molvar: Ranching has the potential to cause chronic habitat degradation, and the bottom line is that sage grouse need at least seven inches of grass height to hide from predators. When the cattle come in and graze that grass down the sage grouse don’t have anywhere to hide, the predators wipe them out, and it’s basically a livestock grazing problem at its root. The other major issue is that further west, cheatgrass invasion has become a huge threat and that’s caused by overgrazing from livestock. And so, if you can’t stop the overgrazing from livestock, you’re not going to stop the invasion of cheatgrass, and that leads to wildfires that wipe out the sage brush, and that’s the sole habitat requirement of sage grouse is to have that sage brush out on the landscape.
Urry: Going to some of these treatment programs, and some of these “restoration” programs that are out there under the Sage Grouse Initiative and so forth, and back to the ranching… I mean, are there any of these voluntary efforts that are going on by the ranching industry that are actually helpful? Is any of it making a difference in conserving any of the habitat, or is it just all just essentially trading one ecosystem for another? Or, how do you see that in the larger picture?
Molvar: Well, for these voluntary sage grouse habitat enhancement programs, there have been millions of dollars spent here in Wyoming on these various and sundry different habitat treatments. Not one of these programs have every shown an increase in sage grouse populations. So, there’s no proof that they can actually compensate for the habitat that gets lost when you have something like oil and gas development or range degradation from livestock grazing. The one possibility where there is some hope there is for conservation easements because in areas unlike Wyoming where there is a lot of threat for subdivision and rural sprawl, you can have the potential to lock those lands up, and maintain them in an undeveloped state, at least as agriculture lands, which is better than having them go to industrial development or subdivisions.