State, drilling giant joining forces on new grouse regs

Sep 18, 2013 Associated Press

CHEYENNE (AP) -- As Wyoming's oil boom continues to encroach on areas populated by sage grouse, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been working with a petroleum company to develop a plan to guide oil drilling in a vast area of state-designated sage grouse habitat in east-central Wyoming.

Laurie Heath of Chesapeake Energy and Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, plan to present the latest developments with the proposal on Wednesday when the Sage Grouse Implement-ation Team, a panel of landowners and government, industry and conservation officials, is scheduled to meet in Cheyenne.

The plan seeks to concentrate future drilling in already disturbed portions of the Douglas Core Area while trying not to disturb new portions of the nearly 140-square-mile zone a few miles east of Douglas, said Budd, one of 14 people on the team.

"One of the things we want to do is maintain the integrity of the habitat," Budd said Monday.

"What it comes down to is, are there ways to look at development, short term and long term, that may allow us to actually improve habitats, and do some things we haven't been able to do in the past?"

Sage grouse are chicken-sized, ground-dwelling bird whose numbers have been in steep decline over the past century due to loss of their sagebrush habitat.

Wyoming officials are keen to avoid a federal threatened or endangered species listing for sage grouse that would impede oil and gas drilling and other development across much of the state.

Federal officials have praised Wyoming's strategy of designating core areas of prime sage grouse habitat, including areas where the birds mate and breed.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has adopted the core-area approach as a model to follow in other states.

Others say Wyoming officials have been too willing to allow drilling in the core areas.

"If it doesn't have some teeth behind it, it's meaningless. It's kind of window dressing. It's like another one of these fake regulations or something," Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council said.

The Douglas area has seen rapid oil development recently. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has approved more than 500 permits for horizontal wells in Converse County so far this year. Neighboring Campbell County ranks second with almost 400 approved permits.

Under Wyoming's core-area policy, no more than 5 percent of the habitat in a designated core area can be classified as disturbed.

Almost 20 percent of the Douglas Core Area is classified as already disturbed. No other sage grouse core area in Wyoming has as much existing disturbance, said Mary Flanderka, habitat protection supervisor with the Game and Fish Department.

"This one's pretty unique," Flanderka said Tuesday.

Some drilling has occurred in the Douglas Core Area, but recent wildfires have been responsible for far more habitat disruption, Budd said.

By working with Chesapeake, the state will allow drilling while recognizing that habitat disruption already exists, he said. The goal is to "avoid, minimize and mitigate" any new disruption.

"That would be multiple wells from a single pad. That would directional drilling, horizontal drilling. All of those things are things that are being looked at in the development plan," he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency which implements the Endangered Species Act, has been kept apprised of the development plan, he said.

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