New Wyoming Sage Grouse Plan Fails to Brings Standards Up to Scientific Benchmarks

For Immediate Release

August 21, 2019

Contact:

Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, 307-399-7910

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Governor Mark Gordon today issued a new state sage-grouse Executive Order, keeping protection levels largely the same, and allowing significantly greater levels of habitat destruction than sage-grouse populations can sustain.

“It’s another lost opportunity for the State of Wyoming to bring its sage-grouse protections up to scientific standards, and this means that the current declining populations have an even dimmer prospect of recovering to healthy levels,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project.

The state plan codified under Executive Order 2019-3 has the following major flaws, which are likely to lead to further sage-grouse population declines:

Buffers around leks to prevent industrial development remain at 0.6 mile, despite science showing that the appropriate lek buffers should be set at 3.1 to 5 miles.

  • Surface disturbance averaging a destruction of 5% of sage-grouse habitat is allowed inside Core Areas, even though there is no scientific basis for the 5% figure, and it allows full-scale oil and gas development at the usual and customary 4 wellpads per square mile, inside Core Areas, a development density that causes sage-grouse populations to decline to extirpation.
  • Although the Executive Order recognizes that northeast Wyoming’s Powder River Basin is “ecologically limited” and its grouse populations are tanking, the state plan provides “no distinct stipulations” offering stronger protection, and the EO strands some of the area’s highest-grouse-density habitats outside Core Areas, with minimal protections.[1]
  • Noise increases for new projects are limited to 10 decibels above the baseline level In Core Areas, which in areas with pre-existing industrial noise not only allows noise levels above the 20 dBA level at which sage-grouse start abandoning their habitats, but also permits noise levels to be stepped up over time as the current project’s noise increase becomes the next project’s baseline.
  • The Executive Order does designate significant Winter Concentration Area acreage in the Upper Green River Valley, but then nullifies its conservation benefit by allowing unlimited development and noise within the designated habitat, as long as construction occurs between March 15th and November 30th.

In addition, the new Executive Order provides loopholes in the form of declaring certain actions known to harm sage-grouse and their habitats as “de minimis” activities, which are exempt from the habitat protections in the Executive Order, including the following:

  • Barbed-wire fences, which are known to guillotine low-flying sage-grouse in astounding numbers based on Wyoming Game and Fish Department research, are completely unregulated in Core Area lands outside the 0.6-mile lek buffer.
  • Livestock grazing, so long as it is minimally managed under a federal plan, is exempt despite scientific findings from Wyoming, later verified by subsequent research after concerns were raised about research methods, that livestock grazing is harmful to sage-grouse nest success when grass heights are reduced below 7 inches. Importantly, federal grazing levels are typically set at 50% forage removal by livestock, a level that is incompatible with maintaining adequate grass cover for grouse to escape their natural predators.
  • Reservoirs smaller than 10 acres are exempt from management, even though the countless smaller coalbed methane wastewater ponds in the Powder River Basin are known to provide breeding habitat for mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, implicated in sage-grouse population crashes in this area.

“This is a disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising, failure to provide sage-grouse what we all know they need to survive, based on the science,” said Molvar. “This new plan demonstrates that Wyoming remains committed to a status quo that has caused this iconic bird to decline from vast populations to perilous scarcity over the past century.”

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