Study Finds Energy Development Not Suitable on Sage Grouse Habitat

79 percent of suitable land for energy falls outside of sagebrush habitat, report says

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

By Mark Carter

A study released Tuesday indicates that just a small portion of sage-grouse habitat is suitable for energy development, as the Interior Department considers its approach to sagebrush conservation in the western U.S.

The report, available here and issued by Western EcoSystems Technology Inc. for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, found that 79 percent of areas in western states with medium to high potential for energy development falls outside of sage-grouse habitat. 

The Interior Department last week initiated a review of its sage-grouse management and sagebrush conservation practices. Hunters are concerned about the potential impact of a new approach on sagebrush-dependent species such as sage grouse, fearing that it may de-emaphasize habitat management.

Sage grouse, native to the western U.S., have been in historcial decline for decades. Estimates put their number at roughly half a million, down from 16 million a century ago.

Habitat management helped keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list in 2015, the last time the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reviewed the bird's status. FWS is scheduled to review the status again in 2020.

The report studies the overlap of current habitat management areas and existing leases and rights-of-way for energy development, and also analyzes the potential for future energy development -- oil and gas, solar, wind -- on public land located within sage grouse habitat.

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John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry, said the report could prove “highly consequential” in onging efforts to preserve habitat.

“Our sagebrush steppe is a resource of incalculable value – an ecosystem that, with its robust fish and wildlife populations, diverse recreational offerings and public lands hunting and fishing opportunities, anchors the economies of states and communities across the West,” he said in a statement. “Sportsmen have an enormous stake in sustaining the lands and waters relied upon not just by the sage grouse but by hundreds of species of fish and wildlife."

Gale said energy development is "an appropriate and necessary use of our public lands, particularly in the West," but noted that it must be pursued responsibly and only where it works.

“Our report shows that the vast majority of greater sage grouse habitat is ill-suited to energy development of any kind, now or in the future – and that more than three-quarters of areas potentially suited to energy production are located outside areas important to sage grouse," he said.

For oil and gas specifically, the report found that only 29 percent of all federal land and minerals located within the study area -- that were assumed to have medium to high development potential -- were located in the sagebrush habitat area. 

The "sagebrush sea" of the West encompasses about 257 million acres of sagebrush steppe, home to the sage grouse and more than 350 species of fish and wildlife, including big-game species such as mule deer, pronghorn and elk, according to Backcountry. 

The full report is available here.