Study: Energy firms implementing grouse conservation measures

Oil and natural gas companies implement an average of more than six conservation measures per project to protect greater sage grouse when operating on public lands, according to the results of a study released by an energy trade association.

The results show energy development can continue even while avoiding a listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species and the potential land use restrictions that could result, said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance.

In fact, conservation measures implemented by oil and natural gas companies working with local land managers are more effective at protecting the sage grouse than a one-size-fits-all federal approach, Sgamma said.

“Companies invest vast amounts of time, capital and human resources implementing sage grouse protections and are continuously developing new measures to more effectively conserve the species,” Sgamma said. “The binding commitments companies make are effective for protecting the species while enabling energy development that creates jobs, economic growth and vital government revenue for local communities.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the sage grouse as “eligible, but precluded” from a listing as an endangered species and has until November to make a decision regarding a listing. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been developing a resource management plan intended to prevent a listing that has has come under fire from local governments, residents and industry groups in Western Colorado as too restrictive.

At the urging of Western Slope groups, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed John Swarthout to lead a state-based plan to protect sage grouse as well as the regional economy.

A Denver-based trade association, the Western Energy Alliance represents more than 480 companies involved in oil and natural gas exploration and production in the West.

The study, conducted by SWCA Environmental Consultants, describes measures the industry is implementing through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulatory structure to protect the species.

SWCA analyzed 103 project NEPA documents and found that companies implemented a total of 773 conservation measures, an average of 6.5 per project, across 68,404 square miles of sage grouse habitat in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

Examples of conservation and mitigation measures included:

  • Limiting surface disturbance by applying no surface occupancy restrictions around sage grouse breeding areas
  • Imposing seasonal restrictions and limiting activities during nesting and brood-rearing seasons.
  • Controlling noise and visual disturbances by strategically placing sources of noise and light to reduce disturbances.
  • Clustering activity by locating multiple wells on a single pad and consolidating water management, hydraulic fracturing and other activities.
  • Reclaiming habitat by re-contouring land to the natural topography and planting native seed mixtures.
  • Reducing predator perches by eliminating perches for raptors and ravens that prey on sage grouse.
  • Reducing noxious weeds that diminish the abundance of native plants used for food and cover.
  • Reducing dust on vegetation, which can affect the health and quality of habitat and forage.

“As the Fish and Wildlife Service determines whether to list the species, it should recognize the strong commitments companies have made under the existing regulatory framework and rethink its assumption that oil and natural gas development is a major threat,” Sgamma said. “This study shows in concrete terms how oil and natural gas companies are conserving the sage grouse while delivering economic growth in western communities.”