Bird in a bind 

Farmers, ranchers, energy corporations, environmentalists and more are trying to save the greater sage grouse. How did one species end up in everyone's business?

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Around the same time, the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the majority of sage grouse habitat nationwide, released a slew of regional plans to manage the bird on federal land. Both the state and the BLM will focus their efforts on what they call "core areas."

"Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks worked with the BLM about five years ago to designate core areas," says Catherine Wightman, FWP's habitat and Farm Bill coordinator. "The intent was to identify those areas that are most important to the conservation of the species." The agency met with local biologists to identify the areas with the highest population densities of sage grouse in the state. The governor's advisory council drew lines around these strongholds to create a total of 12 different core areas.

"These core areas have to be big and intact," says Naugle. "They have to keep out the major stressors like energy development and sod busting."

Montana and the BLM put forth rules to regulate future energy development inside the core areas. The Montana plan, for instance, allows no surface occupancy within one mile of active sage grouse breeding grounds, also known as leks. Oil and gas companies cannot build more than one well pad per square mile in core areas. Power companies must locate their transmission lines, which provide perches for grouse-eating raptors, at least one mile from leks or bury the lines underground. Though the BLM plans vary in detail, their stipulations follow a similar approach.

click to enlarge Jenney Paddock, a range specialist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, works with ranchers to develop sustainable grazing plans. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Jenney Paddock, a range specialist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, works with ranchers to develop sustainable grazing plans.

All of which has the energy industry peeved.

In September, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a listening meeting in Billings to hear from locals about the impact a sage grouse ESA listing would have in their communities. David Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, spoke out against the BLM draft strategies.

"... New oil and gas leasing, exploration and development in Montana will be essentially terminated in areas within sage grouse habitat if the measures proposed by BLM in its [Resource Management Plan] revisions are adopted," Galt told the committee. "[No surface occupancy] stipulations, which prevent the use of the surface area of the lease, would be imposed on 50 percent of the public lands in the Miles City Field Office, 70 percent in the HiLine Field Office and 60 percent in the Billings Field Office."

At a recent press conference, the Montana Electric Cooperatives' Association announced that it supports a state management plan for sage grouse, but would like to see the plan tweaked.

"It is more restrictive than we hoped it would be ... Our biggest worry about this plan is what it's going to do to rates," said Gary Wiens, assistant general manager of MECA. "What we are urging the governor to do is to stand firm, to resist pressure to make [the plan] more restrictive."

Some conservation groups, however, argue that the state and federal plans don't go far enough. With 18 percent of the range-wide population, Montana has the second highest number of sage grouse after Wyoming. The stakes here are high.

"While these plans would attempt to manage future land uses more carefully in sage grouse habitat, one of our major concerns is that much of the landscape has already been leased for mineral development," says Salvo, the Defenders of Wildlife policy analyst. "None of these plans would prescribe new conservation measures for existing leases."

The Cedar Creek Anticline, a long, thin oil and gas field that jabs into Montana's eastern flank like a knife, is of particular concern. The 780-square-mile anticline contains a crucial core area that links Montana's sage grouse population to sage grouse in the Dakotas. Oil and gas wells, roads and truck traffic dominate the landscape.

A 2010 study by Naugle, Rebecca Taylor and others identified 30 sage grouse leks and 265 male sage grouse in the Cedar Creek Anticline area. A look at the Montana Board of Oil and Gas webmapper application reveals that there are more than 1,000 approved, producing or completed wells that slice right through important habitat in Fallon County alone—and more wells are on their way.

"The Cedar Creek Anticline was called out in the state draft plan as an area that will require ongoing special management due to current and future development," says Catherine Wightman of FWP. Special management means oil and gas companies will be able to develop their own sage grouse management plans and submit them to the state for approval, rather than follow the state's core area stipulations.

click to enlarge Jenney Paddock, a range specialist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, works with ranchers to develop sustainable grazing plans. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Jenney Paddock, a range specialist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, works with ranchers to develop sustainable grazing plans.

The special management approach applies only to future development. The state offers no plans to manage previously developed well sites in the area.

"The bottom line here is that we need to do as much as we can to restore those areas that should be core habitats but are degraded by industrial development," says Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. "The BLM, for instance, could shut down oil and gas well access on public lands during breeding and nesting seasons." Other conservationists, including former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, advocate the expansion of the federal wildlife refuge system.

The Powder River Basin, which extends from northeastern Wyoming into Montana, is another area of concern. It links sage grouse in Montana, Canada and the Dakotas to populations in the rest of the range. If extirpation proceeds there, the northern grouse could become dangerously isolated.

The basin, however, is a major coal producing region, and also harbors oil and gas development and coal bed methane drilling. Cloud Peak Energy's Spring Creek Mine sits right in the middle of two small special management core areas near the Wyoming border. The strip mine covers 9,115 acres, of which 4,059 are disturbed. It is the single largest coal mine in the state, having produced 17 million tons of coal in 2012. Eight sage grouse leks are in close proximity to the mine.

Such industrial activity, combined with West Nile virus outbreaks that are getting worse as wastewater ponds from drilling and mining create more mosquito habitat in the area, poses a fatal threat to Powder River Basin grouse.

In 2012, the Taylor and Naugle team studied sage grouse persistence on the Wyoming side of the Powder River Basin, and found a troubling trend: "Effects of energy development and past [West Nile virus] outbreaks have depressed sage-grouse numbers in northeast Wyoming, placing the remaining small population at risk of extirpation," they wrote in the report. Montana's Powder River Basin grouse face the same dire problem.

click to enlarge Sagebrush grassland is fragmented by barbed wire fencing in the foreground and sod busting in the background. Habitat fragmentation is a singular threat to the greater sage grouse. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Sagebrush grassland is fragmented by barbed wire fencing in the foreground and sod busting in the background. Habitat fragmentation is a singular threat to the greater sage grouse.

The BLM and Montana's sage grouse advisory council will hold public meetings across Montana in the months ahead. Depending on public response, they will adopt their draft proposals sometime next year. The million-dollar question, as FWP's Wightman put it, is this: Will the plans work?

If they don't, an ESA listing is imminent.


With the wind gusting and the sage grouse long gone, Szczypinski and Paddock return to the truck. They drive to the edge of a nearby lek, an ancestral breeding ground at the center of the sage grouse life cycle. Part dance hall, part boudoir, the lek beckons generations of sage grouse to an annual mating ritual that begins in early spring. When researchers want to find sage hens, they look near the lek. When scientists want to estimate grouse populations, they count males on the lek.

The two scientists walk out onto the lek as a herd of cows eyes them. It is a flat, dried-out mudflat pockmarked with prairie dog mounds; an anonymous slab of dirt. It doesn't look like much, but this is where the male sage grouse dance and fight for supremacy each year while the ladies look on.

The ornate mating ritual happens like this: A male appears on the mudflat lek. He wobbles two sagging yellow bags on his chest, each breast-like and hemmed in by the white feathery boa permanently wrapped around his neck.

He beats his wings, lifts his legs like a royal horse, and dances between the springtime sagebrush while the yellow bags inflate and deflate and inflate again. He lets out a Jurassic-like pop, a hiss that harkens back to bison and yew bows, and further back to land bridges and great migrations. He wants to dance and fight and win. He wants to mate, and everyone—from oil developers to wildlife biologists, whether out of calculated self-interest or ecological idealism—wants the bird to succeed.

This story was updated Friday, Dec. 13, to include Conservation Media in two photo credits.

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