This edition of Bird Banter, "How to get energy and save our sage grouse," appeared Apr. 2, 2008 in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle's Outdoors section. Please contact the author, email@example.com, for permission to reprint it in hard copy or virtual copy for commercial or nonprofit purposes. Thanks.
Sage-grouse geology: find grouse, find oil. By Barb Gorges
Is geology destiny? Geology is rocks. A particular weathered rock makes a particular kind of soil which, with water, grows particular vegetation. Particular vegetation feeds and shelters particular animals.
Thus, a geologic formation rich in oil and gas can be associated with certain wildlife species.
Using overlays last month at the Cheyenne - High Plains Audubon Society meeting, Alison Lyon-Holloran, conservation program manager for Audubon Wyoming, showed Wyoming's oil, gas and coalbed methane fields almost perfectly align with greater sage-grouse habitat.
The sagebrush ecosystem, on which the grouse is entirely dependent, stretches across Wyoming in a wide swath from the northeast to the southwest, avoiding the mountains in the northwest and the grasslands of the southeast.
If you have not driven across the state, it may be hard to believe that so many acres of sagebrush exist, from the ankle-high species on the dry hills to the small forests along riparian (stream) corridors.
It's hard to believe sage-grouse are so dependent on sage, from hiding their nests in a straggly old stand to grazing on the buds while keeping an eye out for predatory golden eagles.
It's hard to believe a chicken-like 6-pound male or 3-pound female is so shy and easily distracted that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's drilling stipulations provide, on average, a 2-mile buffer zone around a lek during breeding season.
Those leks are collections of as many as 50-150 males each spreading spikey tail feathers, popping white-feathered neck sacs and defending small territories. The females stroll through, looking for the best genetic material which, Alison said, may be from the same one or two males for all of them.
Someone in the audience asked how sage-grouse are doing. Fine, Alison said, away from the energy development areas. Two wet years have really made a difference in what was a general decline during drought years. However, despite the moisture, they are not doing well in energy areas. It's too crowded and noisy.
Several energy companies have committed millions of dollars to provide offsite mitigation for wildlife and other land users who have lost the use of lands now in oil and gas production.
It would be nice to think that people could enhance sagebrush habitat away from all the wells to produce more grouse, but Alison, who studied sage-grouse for her master's thesis and has been immersed in the research and issues for the last 10 years, said there are no studies showing how to produce scraggly 100-year old sagebrush stands.
The millions of dollars in mitigation money cannot be used to study why some sagebrush is not attractive to sage-grouse and what can be done to improve it.
It is conceivable, said Alison, that the few remaining healthy sage-grouse leks in Wyoming could be compromised, forcing the birds to be listed as either threatened or endangered-something neither energy companies nor environmentalists want to see happen.
If sage-grouse become threatened or endangered, it would mean more development restrictions for energy companies and much more work for the environmental community.
Of Wyoming's total 62 million acres, the federal government owns, and BLM manages, 41 million acres of minerals below the surface (and 18 million acres of the surface).
So far, 14 million acres of federal minerals have been leased for oil and gas. Don't forget state and private oil and gas leasing because 45 percent of Wyoming's total oil and 37 percent of its natural gas production comes from them. See BLM's 2007 annual report at www.blm.gov/wy.
In the old days, environmental groups would be preparing lawsuits. Instead, Alison and Audubon Wyoming executive director Brian Rutledge came up with the Greater Sage-grouse Species Survival Plan. They have hired Kevin Doherty, who studied sage-grouse for his PhD, to give the issue the necessary rigorous, scientific, statistical scrutiny.
The National Audubon Society has taken notice also, and has made sagebrush one of its top conservation concerns.
Key players from federal and state government have been working with energy and environmental groups to figure out how, during fluid mineral development, we can have our energy and our grouse, too, here in the state with the most grouse habitat of any in the country. And there are other sagebrush species that will benefit.
The highlight of Alison's presentation was the Steve Chindgren film, "It's Just Sagebrush," a half hour un-narrated look at wildlife in the sage over a year's time. It was filmed mostly between Farson and Pinedale.
If you haven't yet traveled a two-track, sagebrush tickling the belly of your pickup, pungent sage smell (not the garden variety) wafting through your open window along with a fine wind of dust as you bump over badger holes and glimpse heavy-bodied sage-grouse taking flight like lumbering World War II bombers, you should see the film.
And then you'll be interested in Alison and Brian's plans to begin an e-list to keep you up to date on this issue, letting you know how and when you can be an effective voice for the well-being of an ecosystem.
Contact Alison at 307-745-4848 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Audubon Wyoming office at 358 N. 5th Street, Unit A., Laramie, WY 82072. Go to www.wy.audubon.org and click on Birds & Science for more information.
So, is geology destiny? Yes, I think so. While geology (and climate) makes some states suitable for farming, geology has made Wyoming rich in fossil fuels and sagebrush. We just have to choose how to keep both resources valuable.