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Industry: Grouse measures could mean delays, costs

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Oil and gas companies face more drilling delays and higher costs because of a new U.S. Bureau of Land Management policy for protecting sage grouse in Wyoming, according to the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

The policy will require the industry to conduct an even more detailed study of the birds before receiving BLM approval to drill, said Cheryl Sorenson, an association vice president.

“That’s going to fall on us, as far as cost and time,” Sorenson said Wednesday.

The BLM told its Wyoming offices in a memorandum on Monday to consider several possible alternatives to protect sage grouse, including allowing no more than one drilling pad per square mile in the bird’s core habitat. The new policy also recommends options for restricting drilling during sage grouse mating season each spring.

The memorandum coincides with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weighing whether to list sage grouse as endangered. A decision is expected by the end of February.

While Sorenson said the BLM memorandum could require the industry to monitor sage grouse with radio collars, a BLM sage grouse expert doubted that will happen.

“I’m not aware of anything in the policy that would require industry to do anything of that nature,” Chris Keefe, a wildlife biologist in the BLM state office in Cheyenne, said Thursday.

As it is, oil and gas companies already have backed a number of studies of sage grouse, Sorenson said. Companies voluntarily have been tracking sage grouse with radio collars and helped fund a project to map sage grouse habitat, she said.

That’s on top of what BLM requires the industry to do to receive drilling permits, she said, such as survey lease areas for sage grouse breeding grounds.

“Our industry is constantly doing research above and beyond what we need to for a huge number of species, not just sage grouse,” Sorenson said. “We want to know the effects.”

The group Western Watersheds Project, which sued to list sage grouse as endangered, hasn’t done anything to improve understanding of the species, she said.

“They go purely with the law, with the legal stuff,” Sorenson said. “They don’t do any of the on-the-ground work.”

Idaho-based Western Watersheds didn’t dispute that.

“We’re a conservation group and we believe that the greatest conservation comes from protecting habitat for any species,” said Jon Marvel, the group’s executive director. “Allowing oil and gas development within critical habitat for any species is a mistake. We don’t need any more studies to understand that.”

One drilling pad per square mile is a relatively sparse level of energy development in Wyoming. Some gas fields in the state have wells every 10 acres, or 64 per square mile.

Even one well every square mile is enough to drive off sage grouse after pipelines and roads are built to service the wells, Marvel said Thursday.

Industry has profited immensely from sage grouse habitat, he said, and could be doing more to help the birds.

“Spending a few million dollars in retiring grazing permits would be very beneficial,” Marvel said.

Wyoming is home to perhaps half or more of the nation’s sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird about the size of a chicken that inhabits the state’s intermountain basins. Numbers of the bird have declined between 55 and 90 percent due to loss of their sagebrush habitat.

Sage grouse also are found in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota and parts of Canada.