BLM discusses changes to oil and gas leasing in sage grouse habitat at Craig meeting
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A draft change to the Bureau of Land Management’s greater sage grouse management plan in Colorado could open some priority grouse habitat on public lands to oil and gas leasing.
The Bureau of Land Management hosted a public meeting in Craig Wednesday to provide information about the proposed changes.
The greater sage grouse is a large bird found in the sagebrush of western Routt County and in a swath of habitat in neighboring Moffat, Jackson and Grand counties. The bird is best known for its ostentatious mating display, in which males dramatically inflate two yellow air sacs on their chest, drumming them to attract females on specific display grounds called leks.
The amended plans would allow oil and gas operators to apply for exemptions to lease minerals in areas designated as priority grouse habitat. Currently, the 2015 sage grouse management plan has a strict stipulation that restricts oil and gas leasing on priority habitat. The BLM estimated the change would open an additional 224,200 acres to leasing.
Audience members voiced concern in questions about how exemptions would be granted, and if the BLM’s decision to issue an exemption would be available to the public.
There are three types of exemptions: exceptions, modifications and waivers. The draft document said companies could apply to receive an exception or modification to place well pads in areas where it wouldn’t negatively impact grouse due to topography or existing infrastructure, such as a highway.
Modifications and exceptions could also be granted if managers determine that placing a well in BLM-owned priority habitat would have less of an impact on grouse than placing wells on habitat in adjacent private land.
A waiver would remove any stipulations on the land and would not be granted unless sage grouse were extirpated from an area, said Bridget Clayton, the BLM’s sage grouse coordinator.
The BLM would consider companies’ applications for exemptions and modifications in collaboration with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“Whether it be BLM or CPW or (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service, we want to see the sage grouse survive,” said Andrew Archuleta, district manager of the Colorado BLM’s Northwest District Office. “We’re a multiple use agency. We have other things that we have to manage and see what the best way, the best decisions we can make to allow those other things to occur while still protecting and enhancing the species.”
The proposed changes would more closely align BLM’s procedures with the state’s sage grouse mitigation strategy, the Colorado Habitat Exchange program.
The third major change would allow the BLM to adjust lek buffer distances by evaluating specific sites under the National Environmental Policy Act.
In the meeting, BLM and CPW officials explained the rationale behind the changes and answered questions from the public.
The BLM said it planned to release a final environmental impact statement in early October. Once the environmental impact statement is issued, the agency will decide whether it will implement proposed changes.
Local BLM staff have hinted that the BLM’s Washington D.C. office altered the 2015 Colorado sage grouse plan to include the strict no surface occupancy stipulation to the surprise of local officials and BLM staff. Several Colorado counties have made the same complaint, even filing suit over the matter.
In May 2017, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Garfield and Jackson counties sued the Department of the Interior, alleging the BLM violated federal regulatory procedures and didn’t sufficiently include input from the counties and other local partners.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed the agency in June 2017 to revise sage grouse management plans in 11 western states with the intent of aligning federal plans more closely with state plans. The lawsuit was stayed as amendments to the plan were developed.
“I think this is a really good opportunity to get it back to that plan because we had buy-in from people, so I think, hopefully, if we continue with that buy-in, and we continue having the collaboration, it will stick,” Clayton said.
The turnaround of the draft changes was relatively fast in comparison to the development of the original document.
The BLM took nearly five years to develop the 2015 plan. There were seven months between the agency’s announcement that it intended to review the plan and the release of draft changes, which has created what Moffat County’s Natural Resource Director Jeff Comstock called a “crazy timeline” to produce an amendment to the 2015 plan.
Several groups have criticized the decision to change the 2015 sage grouse plans, including Rocky Mountain Wild, the Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Western Watersheds Project, the American Bird Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity.
“I think we had a good plan, and now, we have a very rushed process to change it, and I am very skeptical that that’s going to result in a better plan in the end,” Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist for Rocky Mountain Wild, a wildlife advocacy organization, told the Craig Press in May.
The Forest Service has also recently announced its intent to modify grouse plans in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland.
To read and comment on the Forest Service’s notice of intent, visit http://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/06/20/2018-13260/idaho-boise-caribou-targhee-salmon-challis-and-sawtooth-national-forests-and-curlew-national.
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