Focus on real threats to sage grouse

Here’s an article that a friend of mine forwarded to me today.  Here’s the direct link to Erik Molvar’s article.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has announced a plan to shut down all sage grouse hunting in the eastern portion of the state this year. At Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, we view this as a symbolic gesture that will do little to help the dwindling grouse population in the Powder River Basin.
Instead, we’re encouraging the Game and Fish Department to focus on the real threat that is causing population declines in the first place: irresponsible types of oil, gas, and coal-bed methane extraction.
In March, the Bureau of Land Management released the results of a sage grouse Population Viability Analysis that predicted the functional extinction of sage grouse in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin upon the next major outbreak of West Nile virus, as coal-bed methane well density increases to eight wells per square mile. The study modeled sage grouse population changes in response to increasing coalbed methane development and other factors, and projected that of the 370 sage grouse leks (or strutting and breeding grounds) active today in the Powder River Basin, only six leks would remain in the wake of a West Nile epidemic.
This is dire news indeed, as the loss of the sage grouse population in northeastern Wyoming would eliminate the key link between populations in Montana, the Dakotas, and Canada with the heart of the sage grouse range in southwest Wyoming. And if this happens, endangered species listing would almost certainly follow.
The Game and Fish Department’s response has been to shut down the sage grouse hunting season. True enough, hunting kills grouse. But mortality from hunters is the least of the grouse’s problems. Sage grouse hunting in this part of Wyoming accounted for the taking of only 129 birds last year, according to WGFD records. As WGFD correctly observes in draft resolution 3-19-12.3 addressing sage grouse hunting seasons, “the proposed [hunting] closure will not result in measurable benefit to sage-grouse …” We recommend that the department expend its sage grouse conservation efforts to address the real problem facing this particular grouse population: habitat loss resulting from energy development, and the threat of West Nile virus.
First, the crippled Core Area designations in northeast Wyoming need to be fixed. When the original sage grouse Core Areas were designated, the boundaries excluded not only lands that had already become coal-bed methane fields, but also lands where drilling was anticipated in the future. As a result of this capitulation to the energy industry, a number of the Powder River Basin lek complexes with the highest sage grouse populations were excluded entirely from the Core Area system, despite the fact that they contained viable habitat at the time. And in the case of habitat that actually was designated as Core Area, in some cases the leks inside Core did not get the full five-mile protection buffer.
The Buffalo Core Area is an especially egregious example of this practice. In this Core Area, all of the sage grouse leks are right next to the boundary. As coal-bed methane crowds up to the eastern boundary, the leks inside the Core Area will be abandoned, resulting in a silent spring with no grouse drumming. What use is a Core Area with no grouse?
In many cases, there are lands next to these leks that remain undeveloped today, but for which plans are being made for high-intensity CBM drilling. The Williams West Bear Pod is a prime example. If protecting the grouse is really a state priority, the WGFD and Commission need to demand that the Core Area boundaries in eastern Wyoming be reformulated to include all lands within five miles of Core Area leks, and that development planned for these lands must comply with the terms and conditions of the Governor’s Core Area Executive Order, at the very least.
The Population Viability Analysis study also points out that West Nile virus is a major threat, a threat that is likely to increase. The WGFD and Commission should advocate for a moratorium on surface disposal of CBM wastewater, and require breaching of existing CBM wastewater ponds as a means of denying habitat to mosquitoes of the Culex genus, which are the carriers of West Nile virus. Scientific studies have shown that CBM reservoirs are a key habitat where mosquitoes breed and multiply. Wastewater should instead be injected underground, or be pipelined to water treatment plants for purification and use as a domestic water supply. The city of Gillette appears to need water sources; perhaps there is a match here.
The Game and Fish Department and Commission appear perfectly ready and willing to halt all sage grouse hunting in eastern Wyoming. Yet nobody within WGFD or the Commission is calling for a halt to oil and gas development in the same area, even though it is widely recognized that this development is the root of the problem. Why is the Game and Fish Commission so eager to shut down activities of Wyoming residents that are causing negligible impacts to grouse, while at the same time failing to advocate for the shutdown of high-impact activities by oil and gas corporations from Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas?
We encourage the Game and Fish Department to refocus their efforts where they’ll do the most good: reining in irresponsible development, which matters most to sage grouse, rather than sage grouse hunting closures, which make little difference.
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. Though a lifelong hunter, he has never hunted sage grouse.

Here’s a photo of Ben McKean’s setter Addie who’s a 1/2 sister to my Gretchen. Gotta love them coverdogs!!


Setter Feathers…

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