No grousing over core areas

By on August 31, 2010

Photo: Sage grouse in Grand Teton National Park from www.wikipedia.org

Photo: Sage grouse in Grand Teton National Park from www.wikipedia.org


Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The recent remapping of state land zoned to conserve Wyoming’s population of greater sage-grouse is not a huge revision, but it does significantly reduce the presence of oil, gas and mining activities that previously fell within so-called core areas. It also redrew the lines of some sage grouse habitat in Jackson Hole.

Last week, Governor Dave Freudenthal issued an executive order that tweaked a patchwork map of core population areas, land within the state identified as critical to preserving healthy numbers of sage grouse.

The bird is considered a near-threatened species and is on the cusp of being designated an endangered species. Given that Wyoming is home to nearly 40 percent of greater sage-grouse in the U.S., the state’s conservation efforts are especially critical to efforts to keep the bird off the endangered species list.

Two years ago, the governor and a statewide team of interested parties designed the Greater Sage-Grouse Core Area plan. It sketched out state land critical to preserving sage grouse population, and set heavy restrictions on industry activity within them. Freudenthal implemented the policy at a state level through an executive order. Since then, the Bureau of Land Management has adopted a similar policy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is beginning the process of adjusting its sage grouse management strategy.

Freudenthal’s latest executive order regarding the plan expands the core areas to include an additional 400,000 acres. That number has generated a lot of attention, but it amounts to less than a one-percent increase in conserved land, which now totals 16 million acres. According to Tom Christiansen, the Sage-Grouse Program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the new core area map reduces the percentage of the state’s oil and gas wells within the core areas from seven percent to less than five percent. The percentage of mines in the state within core areas declined from more than 20 percent to about one percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of sage grouse captured within core area boundaries increased from 82 to 83 percent.

According to Joe Bohne, a staff biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, a core area in Teton County was adjusted in the new executive order. Based on research conducted by Bryan Bedrosian, a biologist with Craighead Beringia South, hay fields, timbered areas and land along the Snake River were dropped from the core area while sagebrush habitat stretching to Moran was added.

The greater sage-grouse is heavily dependent upon expansive, intact sagebrush habitat. Their diet consists mainly of sagebrush, they depend on it for nesting and males use breaks in the brush as display areas, or leks, to perform their elaborate courtship rituals.

The environmental impacts of fossil fuel development don’t sit right with sage grouse. Road construction, well pad installation and drilling activities degrade the bird’s habitat more than just about any other human activity other than wind energy.

Core areas allow for continued land use and landowner activities such as ranching, grazing and farming so long as they don’t convert sagebrush habitat into agricultural lands. However, oil and gas development activities are heavily restricted in core areas and wind energy is all but forbidden.

That’s because there is almost no scientific data showing the impact of wind energy development on sage grouse populations.

The entire reason for establishing core areas is to prevent the bird from landing on the endangered species list. Bohne said that if the sage grouse were listed, it would “have profound repercussions across the West.” Bob Budd, the executive director of the Wyoming Land Trust and the chairman of the governor’s Sage-Grouse

Implementation Team, estimated that 85 percent of the state’s economy would be negatively impacted by the sage grouse being listed. “If you wanted to expand a hospital or a school in Jackson and it fell on sage grouse habitat, not even just inside a core area, it would have to go through consultation,” Budd said. “It would be costly and time consuming and would have a negative impact on the economy throughout the state.”

In March, the Department of the Interior decided that while the sage grouse is facing extinction, it would not be designated an endangered species. Instead, it was placed on a list of “candidate species.” That move was seen as a middle-route to appease both industry and conservation advocates.

The greater sage-grouse is seen by biologists as an indicator species. Like the canary in the coal mine, a decline in sage grouse numbers indicates an unhealthy habitat, one where other plants and animals are almost surely suffering as well.

“If you’re protecting good sage grouse habitat, you’re very likely protecting good habitat for many species,” said Tom Christiansen, the Sage-Grouse Program
Coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

According to Christiansen, Wyoming’s sage grouse population has declined since the core areas strategy was adopted in 2008. He attributes that drop mostly to the cyclic nature of sage grouse populations and said two years is too short a time to determine whether the plan is working.

“We’re talking about monitoring them over decades, not over two years,” he said. JHW

Photo: Sage grouse in Grand Teton National Park from www.wikipedia.org

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