Guest opinion: Sage grouse can coexist with oil production

2014-07-28T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Sage grouse can coexist with oil productionBy DAVID A. GALT The Billings Gazette
July 28, 2014 12:00 am  • 

The threat of an impending threatened or endangered ruling for sage grouse has prompted many opinions about best management practices. Some writers have suggested that if it weren’t for oil and gas drilling, we’d have significantly greater sage grouse populations.

On the contrary, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the top threats to sage grouse in the Western United States. Energy development is not among the top five. According the USFWS, the primary threat to sage grouse is the loss of habitat due to invasive plant species like cheatgrass.

The Montana Petroleum Association supported Gov. Steve Bullock’s decision to establish a council to address made-in-Montana strategies in a way that make sense for both economic development and conservation. Unfortunately, some key decisions by the council made its plan more restrictive than the Wyoming plan already approved by the USFWS. In fact, some council determinations impose restrictions that affect oil and gas development.

Cedar Creek grouse

There continue to be many unanswered questions regarding impacts on sage grouse by a variety of identified threats. A key question is how the Cedar Creek Anticline in Fallon County, an area where some of the state’s most extensive and productive oil and gas fields are located, can merit designation as “core” sage grouse habitat, even though historically no extensive restrictions on activities have ever been implemented. Clearly, this brings into serious question the notion that oil and gas development is a significant threat to sage grouse and its habitat.

Some of the purported “scientific evidence” cited by most state and federal wildlife agencies falsely claims that oil and gas development “extirpates” sage grouse populations — completely kills them off. In fact, some studies from the Pinedale field in Wyoming include pictures of development-rich areas which opponents of fossil fuels are fond of using to suggest that development has led to the demise of sage grouse populations.

How then, can some of the most densely populated sage grouse areas be located in and around those developed areas? And why do federal and state wildlife agencies refuse to re-examine this issue? This is an important consideration given that sage grouse populations are actually on the rise throughout the entire state, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s own figures.

During the public meeting tour of the Montana council’s draft conservation plan, farmers and ranchers at every stop questioned why predation was not recognized as one of the primary threats to sage grouse populations. Wildlife officials claim predation is not a primary threat; specifically, ravens, fox, coyotes, raptors and skunks do not threaten the bird’s survival. Yet these hardworking people who attended the tour live with the sage grouse every day and have seen that predation is definitely a chief threat to the health of the sage grouse.

And then there is hunting. According to wildlife officials, hunting does not affect the mortality of the bird; despite the fact that hunting is the most well-documented source of mortality with 207,433 sage grouse harvested in the grouse range between 2001 and 2007.

The Endangered Species Act has had an enormously negative impact on Montana’s economy, which will continue long into the future. Lynx and wolverines are being eyed for protective measures in central and Western Montana. Meanwhile, sage grouse and Sprague’s pipit are posing problems in Eastern Montana.

It is critically important for all management decisions to be based upon unrefuted scientific evidence and need, rather than broad assumptions made by a select few who have chosen to ignore the facts.

Montana Petroleum Association believes that based upon on-the-ground scientific evidence, revenue generating oil and gas activities have been shown to coexist with Montana’s natural heritage and wildlife, and we look forward to continuing to be part of the solution.

David A. Galt is executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association in Helena.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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