Feds Green-light Drilling in Imperiled Sage Grouse Habitat

Two drilling projects in Wyoming threaten imperiled sage grouse and lands proposed for wilderness protection.

There’s something rotten in Wyoming: the federal Bureau of Land Management is giving oil and gas interests the green light to drill in imperiled sage grouse habitat and on lands that local residents want protected as Wilderness.

What’s worse is that the BLM acknowledged in 2002 that these public lands, bordering the Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area, were themselves worthy of a Wilderness designation, the highest level of protection for public lands.

But now that Samson Resources, an oil company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is eying the area for exploratory drilling, the BLM has suddenly flipped its position, finding that industrial oil and gas development would have “no significant impact” on the Adobe Town region.

We’re not buying it.

The breakneck buildup of oil and gas drilling on western public lands over the past decade has hit the sage grouse hard. Oil and gas wells have tripled in sage grouse habitat in the last 20 years and development pressure from dirty energy continues, despite the fact that the oil and gas industry is sitting on 6,500 gas drilling permits in the West – with more than half in Wyoming.

Oil infrastructure, like this crisscrossing the Beartooth Absaroka Front in Wyoming, can devastate sage grouse habitat.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that sage grouse – gone from nearly half their former range – warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, but would have to take a backseat to other priorities.

If more drilling is approved in sage grouse habitat, however, these ground-dwelling birds may find roost on the top of the list. The Fish and Wildlife Service flags oil and gas development as particularly harmful to these funky fowl. In addition to the well pads, roads, pipelines, power lines and an increased human presence can cause populations to decline.

The new sage grouse breeding areas, or leks, were found just prior to approving the project. The discovery should have triggered BLM to postpone and conduct a thorough environmental study of how the project would affect sage grouse and the environment. But BLM has continued to press forward.

Defenders Takes Action

On Thursday, Defenders joined a team of local and national conservation groups in suing the BLM to block the wells.

“Sage grouse are already threatened with extinction, and we are very concerned that this kind of industrial development will have devastating effects on the local population,” said Pete Nelson, Defenders federal lands program director. “Given the fragile condition of sage grouse in Wyoming and throughout its range, protecting special places like Adobe Town is the key to sustaining the iconic species in throughout the West.”

Meanwhile, BLM has recently announced a plan for new sage grouse protections. The majority of remaining sage grouse populations relies on sagebrush habitat on BLM lands — the same lands being targeted by oil and gas developers.