COVER STORY: Battle brews across the West over sage-grouse protections

Author: Mark Jaffe - July 10, 2018 - Updated: July 19, 2018


While the big, ground-dwelling bird known as the greater sage-grouse relies upon the West’s sagebrush steppe for its living, its survival may rest on a delicately negotiated set of agreements — agreements that the Trump administration, as with so many things, is set to upend.

But the situation may be different in Colorado — at least for the moment.

The administration’s push is pitting oil and gas development on America’s “sagebrush sea” against the protection of one the habitat’s prime residents, the sage-grouse — a bird whose western population has dropped to as few as 200,000 from a historical high estimated at 16 million.

A greater sage-grouse. (Bureau of Land Management)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the sage-grouse’s western habitat  is “one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America due to continued degradation and lack of protection.”

In 2015, under the Obama administration, plans to protect sage-grouse habitat and restrict development were negotiated state by state. The goal was to craft local plans and projects to prevent the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species leading to federal intervention.

But starting last spring, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration’s public-lands overseer and an advocate of greater development of the West’s sprawling public lands, began pressing to revise those 2015 plans.

In May, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — which, like the Fish and Wildlife Service, is a division of Zinke’s Interior Department — came out with amendments to the plans in six western states that would remove the most stringent protections from millions of acres and allow for oil and gas development.

In October, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper warned that major changes would undo years of collaboration among local, state, business and conservation interests.

“We are both very concerned that the new administration is going to take away all the guide rails that allowed this collaboration to exist,” Hickenlooper said last October.

BLM’s move has led to three lawsuits filed in federal courts in Idaho and Montana by environmental groups and landowners seeking to block the changes and reverse oil and gas lease sales on 1,300 square miles of land in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration’s public-lands overseer and an advocate of greater development of the West’s sprawling public lands, has been pressing to revise sage-grouse protection plans. (Ryan Hermens/Rapid City Journal via AP)

“Zinke is pulling out all the elements of that deal that are inconvenient to the oil and gas industry,” said Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the Idaho lawsuit.

Colorado is not a target of the lawsuit and has, in cooperation with the state BLM office, managed to keep its protection plan largely intact. But some local officials are seeking changes from Washington, and oil and gas interests are looking for revisions comparable to those in other states.

The Hickenlooper administration backs the state’s 2015 plan, but if there were “substantial changes, we’d have a problem,” said John Swartout, the governor’s rural policy and outreach director.

To be sure, there already were issues with the 2015 plans. After years of local negotiations and agreements, when the plans were “rolled up” by the Obama administration, they became more uniform. Some local agreements, including in Colorado, were dropped.

Washington under Obama also created 10 million acres of “Sage Brush Focal Areas,” which would have the highest protection. “That was sort of dropped on the states,” said John Freemuth, executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy and Boise State University, in Boise, Idaho. “People were unhappy.”

Still, in 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that a listing of the sage-grouse as endangered was not warranted. The service said it would review the bird’s status again in 2020.

The battle is, however, about more than a bird and some sagebrush. For underlying it are competing narratives about the West and competing political parties that have led to oscillations in policy from the Clinton administration to the Trump administration.

“Republicans push the development narrative for the West, Democrats the conservation narrative,” Freemuth said. “For people in the rest of the country, the West is a myth and BLM is a mystery.”

Map shows the historic range of the greater sage-grouse (light green) and its current range (dark green). (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Some on-the-ground environmentalists agree. “We are the place you go through to get to the place you are going,” said Luke Shafer, West Slope director of Conservation Colorado. “(but) this isn’t a museum; people live and work in these big, lonely places.”

This pendulum has been swinging for years. “It is part of a cycle that started with switch from the Carter to Reagan administrations and we’ve seen shifts and shocks since then,” Freemuth said. “Massive swings are not good when you are trying to govern from the middle.”

Colorado, for the moment, has managed to remain in the middle ground. It is the only state where BLM has not proposed amendments to the sage-grouse plan. The changes worked out between the state and Colorado BLM officials include only minor tweaks.

“We have had really good relationships the whole time with (local governments) and the state and the governor’s office,” said Bridget Clayton, Colorado BLM’s sage-grouse coordinator. “It’s the reason why we able to go forward without any major changes.”

On the state’s end, Swartout spearheaded the effort, meeting with local officials, conservation groups, ranch and farming groups, oil and gas interests and federal agencies trying to hammer out compromises.

“The way to address the problems that have been occurring in the sagebrush steppes across the West isn’t through litigation; it is through collaboration,” Shafer said. “John (Swartout) understands that.”

Another factor aiding Colorado is that it only accounts for about 5 percent of the range and the birds, while Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Nevada have 78 percent of the birds, according to a study by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

There are four changes to the original Colorado plan. The area within a mile of a “lek,” the gathering ground for the male sage grouse’s annual mating ritual, had been closed to development, but now will have a designation of “No Surface Occupancy” (NSO). That status will permit access to minerals below the ground as long as the lek isn’t disturbed.

The area out to four miles from the lek remains an NSO area, but now there will be exceptions and waivers available if requirements for drillers to limit impact are met. A provision allowing that differences in terrain can also reduce impacts, which had been cut by the Obama administration, was also restored. The changes could potentially open 224,200 acres to development.

The final modification dealt with adjustments to grazing. “I think we are there on the grouse and in good shape,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “Grazing is seen as complementary to sage-grouse habitat, even advantageous.”

Even with the outreach, not everyone is as happy.

“There was some improvement in it, but I don’t feel the local governments were heard,” said Moffat County Commissioner Don Cook. “It is still the governor’s plan, and I don’t support the governor’s plan.”

Moffat County is home to 70 percent of Colorado’s sage-grouse habitat, nearly 1.2 million acres or 40 percent of the county. “The plan is one of the most restrictive in the West and makes it hard to develop the county,” Cook said.

As for the possibilities of waivers with requirements for drillers, Cook said that the county has attracted the “smaller mom-and-pop exploration companies, and they don’t have the resources to deal with that.”

State officials note that only smaller wildcat operators have looked at the county because as of yet, no oil or gas reserves have been found.

But in Garfield County, with only 4 percent of Colorado’s sage-grouse habitat and its most active West Slope oil and gas operations, the two have managed to collide in the Big Jimmy Unit, a valuable area for natural gas, but also home to the county’s only viable sage-grouse population of about 100 birds.

“It’s the best acreage in the basin,” said David Ludlum, president of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, adding that drilling in the county’s tight sands isn’t like drilling in the Front Range shale, where horizontal wells can access reserves miles away. West Slope wells have to be nearer to the source.

“Our companies have worked closely with counties, state agencies, conservationists and BLM, but the widespread NSO makes those areas unleasable,” Ludlum said.

Some environmental groups also have problems with Colorado’s plan. “It is not as drastic as what is proposed for some of the other states, particularly Utah and Nevada,” the Center for Biological Diversity’s Saul said. “But all of the substantive changes open more land to oil and gas development, making it easier to drill and harder for grouse to survive.”

BLM is seeking public comments on the Colorado plan until Aug. 2, and both sides are taking aim.

“We are disappointed that Colorado chose to just take the old Obama plan,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a regional industry trade group. “But that is something we can work through during the comment period.”

The Center for Biological Diversity will press for a stricter plan based on the science of the sage grouse, Saul said. Meanwhile, local officials are pleading their case directly to Washington, Cook said.

These forces are pulling at the Colorado compromise. In early June the BLM held an oil and gas lease sale that included about 23,000 acres that overlapped with sage-grouse habitat, including 8,300 acres of priority habitat in Moffat and Jackson counties, according to a Wilderness Society analysis.

In announcing the $1.3 million sale, BLM said it was “in keeping with the Administration’s goals of promoting America’s energy independence.” These acres will be under whatever protections are in the final plan.

The Hickenlooper administration remains measured. “Our hope is that the land use plan amendments for sage-grouse conservation leave much of the previous work largely intact,” the governor said in a statement to Colorado Politics. “These plans involved years of tireless, collaborative, and unprecedented effort.”

Mark Jaffe

Mark Jaffe

Mark Jaffe has covered energy, environment and government issues for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bloomberg News and The Denver Post. He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University and studied environmental economics as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. He is the author of two books, "And No Birds Sing, The story of an ecological disaster in a tropical paradise" and "The Gilded Dinosaur-The fossil war between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the rise of American science."