As the wide open spaces of the West continue to shrink, people increasingly seek access to public lands for all types of commercial and recreational uses. Wildlife species, such as the sage-grouse, depend on these undeveloped spaces too. This puts the BLM at the center of a precarious balancing act, as managers must decide what lands can accommodate which combination of uses while also protecting habitat for a wide range of wildlife species.
These plans, also called resource management plans or RMPs, provide a “blueprint” for how the BLM will manage public lands in a particular area over a period of time (generally 10 – 15 years). More than 160 land use plans cover all 245 million acres of BLM-managed public lands; about 73 of these address lands containing sage-grouse priority habitat areas and many are being updated to evaluate and implement new sage-grouse conservation practices. BLM ‘s RMPs are developed, amended and revised at the field office level through an open, collaborative and public process.
This is of particular relevance in Wyoming and Montana, where intense energy development pressures exists in areas directly overlapping important sage-grouse habitats. In both states, the BLM has implemented innovative new approaches with State Office policies and directives that are aimed at avoiding or minimizing impacts of oil, gas and other types of energy development within priority habitat areas.
Energy and Sage-grouse in Wyoming
Wyoming is home to approximately 40 percent of the entire range-wide population of greater sage-grouse and the BLM manages about eight million acres of priority sage-grouse habitat in the State. BLM-managed lands in Wyoming also support vast energy resources. The BLM has participated in a team approach with the State of Wyoming, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, private landowners, industry, and a diverse set of additional partners to develop a balanced approach to long-term sage-grouse conservation in light of the intense pressure for development of the state’s abundant natural resources.
The approach relies on the establishment of priority habitat areas (the State of Wyoming calls them “Core Areas”), that encompass high-density breeding, brood rearing and other seasonal habitats of the greater sage-grouse. The focus of the strategy is to maintain habitats and populations within the priority habitat by restricting or prohibiting activities that may cause habitat loss or fragmentation. The good news is that proactive efforts have already resulted in over 95 percent of currently producing oil and gas wells occurring outside of priority habitat in Wyoming, while 84 percent of Wyoming Sage-grouse attend leks within priority habitat.
Last year, the BLM released a sage-grouse habitat leasing screen that is helping its field offices determine if leasing should be deferred in particular areas of sage-grouse habitat. The screen relies on up-to-date GIS mapping of priority habitat areas and helps the BLM identify opportunities to conserve large contiguous blocks of habitat on public lands before making leasing decisions.
The goal is to support population objectives set by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The new approach also supports the Core Population Area Strategy of the Governor‘s Sage-Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) and the Governor’s Executive Order on sage-grouse. (Governor Mead’s Order 2011-5 reaffirms the direction established by previous Wyoming EOs on sage-grouse.)
Within priority habitat, the new strategy is to consider and evaluate the limitation of surface disturbance to no more than five percent habitat loss and an average of no more than one disruptive activity per 640 acres; projects must also avoid active leks by 0.6 mile. In some cases, no activity would be permitted, pending evaluation of the full strategy which is occurring as BLM amends or revises its RMPs in Wyoming.
BLM-Wyoming issued guidelines in 2010 that contain measures considered for implementation on a case-by-case basis until RMP amendments and revisions are completed. The BLM is amending 6 of Wyoming’s 10 resource management plans under a single Environmental Impact Statement, covering approximately 15 million acres of public land surface and 20 million acres of federal mineral estate in order to incorporate the new sage-grouse policies. The remaining four plans will be revised so that all 10 Wyoming Plans will address the BLM’s approach to implementing the statewide strategy, consistently incorporating measures for management of priority habitats and associated support for State population management objectives and strategies.
Industry partners continue to make substantial contributions to sage-grouse conservation both financially and through support of the statewide conservation strategy in Wyoming. For example, in the Powder River Basin, ConocoPhillips, Noble Energy, and EnCana are funding a study using 40 GPS radio receivers to track sage-grouse habitat use in an area undergoing intensive oil and gas development. The results will be used to develop a management plan for field development. Devon Energy volunteers monitor several leks to collect population data. ConocoPhillips and Devon Energy are assisting with reclamation studies and techniques for sage-grouse habitat as well.
Energy and sage-grouse in Montana and the Dakotas
Greater sage-grouse populations are found on BLM-managed public lands in Montana and the Dakotas, yet their distribution extends well beyond BLM jurisdiction, as this map illustrates. Click here to view a larger version of the map.
Because of Montana’s highly fragmented land ownership patterns, and a relatively small portion of federal ownership in sage-grouse habitat, a collaborative approach is considered essential in protecting and enhancing sage-grouse habitat. (For comparison, the BLM in Wyoming manages more than half of the important breeding habitat for sage-grouse, whereas in Montana, the BLM manages about a quarter; in South Dakota, it is 1.4 percent.) At the same time, Montana and the Dakotas support relatively large and stable populations of sage-grouse on a large portion of its historic range. The BLM has an important opportunity to maintain, protect and enhance vast areas of existing habitat by using the most recent research to guide management.
Since 2008, the BLM has deferred leasing for energy development in priority sage-grouse habitat in Montana until resource management plans are revised. The revisions will take into account new information on sage-grouse habitat needs in order to protect this priority habitat and provide for connectivity between habitats. The approach builds on the “core areas” developed by the State and offers a suite of stipulations and restrictions for all uses, not just energy development. The RMP revisions address the majority of BLM-managed sage-grouse habitat in the three states (Montana and the Dakotas), update the BLM’s approach to sage-grouse conservation and guide on-the-ground decision-making for sage-grouse habitat conservation and restoration.
The effectiveness of the approach will be evaluated by a monitoring program, and through adaptive management, modifications to achieve sage-grouse goals will be undertaken. The approach builds in flexibility and coordination across all field offices and has been coordinated with other agencies responsible for sage-grouse conservation in the region. This will aid in more effective sage-grouse conservation measures in an area with fragmented land ownership patterns. The goal for all the partners is not only to maintain existing habitat but to expand functional habitat to promote greater movement and genetic diversity of greater sage-grouse.
Some of the innovative conservation strategies modeled by Wyoming and Montana have been incorporated into new national policy for managing energy development in sage-grouse habitat on public lands across the West. This 2010 supplemental policy to the BLM’s National Sage-Grouse Habitat Conservation Strategy instructs field offices to limit proposed oil, oil shale, and gas development as well as wind, solar and geothermal development and transmission rights of way in priority habitat areas until land use planning efforts can further evaluate proposed actions. It is designed to allow BLM State and Field Offices the flexibility they need to design and implement appropriate protective measures, working with their State and other partners, because threats to sage-grouse may vary geographically or from region to region.
In fact, all uses permitted on BLM-managed lands are subject to consideration and evaluation in light of potential impacts to sage-grouse. For example, the BLM is evaluating certain recreational activities, particularly off road vehicle use, and livestock grazing to address potential impacts. Again, as these activities cross jurisdictions, the BLM works with State wildlife agencies and other partners to ensure conservation of priority sage-grouse habitat.
In response to requests from state and local governments to facilitate ways to conserve greater sage-grouse and protect its habitat, BLM scientists and managers met with state wildlife management officials July 16, 2011 to brief them on the agency’s National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy. The meeting took place at the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies summer conference in Big Sky, Montana. The BLM strategy emphasizes a cooperative approach and provides a framework to advance efforts to implement timely conservation measures for sage-grouse and its habitat.
As part of the strategy, the BLM will incorporate science-based conservation measures into Resource Management Plans across regions where the greater sage-grouse are found. It will address principal threats to the sage-grouse identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within different portions of the range and work closely with Western state fish and wildlife agencies. For more information, click here.