Greater Sage-Grouse in Wyoming

By: Joy Bannon and Scott Zimmerman

These past 15 years have been a wild ride for sage-grouse. A few presidents and a few Wyoming governors later, Wyoming is still working toward a local approach that preserves the bird while avoiding an Endangered Species Act listing. It is so important to get it right.  The partnership with agriculture, land owners, and sportsmen is an obvious approach, identifying solutions that support our historic agriculture economy as well as healthy habitat for wildlife.  To that end, the partners of Wyoming Conservation Legacy were happy to hear Governor Gordon intends to support the Wyoming Sage-Grouse Implementation Team and continue the Cowboy State’s Executive Order (2015-4) in order to keep a “steady hand on the wheel.”

From conversations with Governor Gordon, his team, and the Wyoming Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, the Governor will re-issue a sage-grouse executive order. There will be some changes, but we understand that we – and other interested stakeholders – will have the opportunity to be engaged in that process to ensure the balance between conservation and development continues.  One underlying principle that will guide our efforts:  Wyoming should continue to be the leader in the management of the greater sage-grouse.

Nothing is perfect in policy, and figuring out what Wyoming’s dual permitting status is with respect to oil and gas leasing on federal lands is an open question. In our next public update, we will drill down into the ins-and-outs of what dual permitting means exactly, and we have a few initial questions, to include:

·      What tools for management and what leverage in decision-making does the state actually have with dual permitting?

·      Do Wyoming agencies have the ability to suggest an alternative location for a well on a specific lease?

·      Do the agencies have the legal right to say “no” to a development operation with an existing lease on federal public land?

·      What role does the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (WYOGCC) have in the dual permitting process?

·      Does WYOGCC have the ability to deny an application or permit to drill (APD) as to whether or not a development moves forward?

The questions outlined above are in response to the increased oil and gas leasing on public lands here in Wyoming, especially within areas of greater sage-grouse habitat. To give you an idea of the scope of those sales and of how many acres are leased, in 2018 we saw 646,864.13 acres sold for lease and a projected 917,210.99 acres are slated for sale in the first two sales of 2019. Of that total, approximately 900,000 acres are located in greater sage-grouse habitat.

Can Wyoming ensure the conservation of the greater sage-grouse when leasing those lands gives an operator a valid existing right to develop that lease? The Governor’s executive order provides for protection with management that dictates a 1 well per 640 acres in core grouse habitat along with a 5% disturbance cap. Our concern comes into play with the Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming plan amendments that include the ability for the agency to provide modifications, waivers, and exceptions. Does the Wyoming’s dual permitting status provide a safeguard to that federal rule?

In the end, agricultural landowners are working together with hunters and anglers to ensure long-term balance for wildlife and grazing. Healthy habitats are just as important for a successful agricultural business as they are for a successful hunt.While administrations come and go, it is good to know Wyoming wants the same balance and conservation legacy we have had for years.