CASPER, Wyo. -- Sage grouse in northeastern Wyoming are on the verge of extinction, hammered hard by a one-two punch from energy development and outbreaks of West Nile virus, according to a recently released U.S. Bureau of Land Management study.
The species, whose health is a barometer for the sagebrush-covered high plains where they live, are one virus outbreak or severe weather event from being killed off in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and southeastern Montana, the researchers said.
"Our results suggest that if development continues, future viability of the already small sage grouse populations in northeast Wyoming will be compromised," said the three University of Montana wildlife biologists who authored the study.
They recommended a range of actions for the BLM, which manages most of the land in the area that has seen intensive energy development in the past decade, particularly as coalbed methane development ramped up in the early 2000s.
According to an earlier study, the sage grouse population in the coalbed methane fields dropped by 82 percent between 2001 and 2005.
The BLM should focus restoration efforts on areas around plugged and abandoned wells, removal of roads and open water from energy development, and additional monitoring and counting, the researchers said.
The study and its recommendations were lauded by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group that has long called for more protection of the sage grouse and more careful energy development in the area.
In a statement, PRBRC board member Bob LeResche said the BLM ignored a "more measured and holistic approach" to development supported by the resource council at the start of the coalbed methane boom, and "now we are paying the price."
"We must not allow the oil and gas industry's political muscle to continue to overwhelm science and the need for careful planning," he said. "We must balance oil and gas development with other resources."
A BLM representative referred questions to a question-and-answer page released by the bureau alongside the report. According to the page, the BLM will move forward with the suggestions of the study's authors, and consider the information as it mulls changes to the bureau's Buffalo field office resource management plan, which covers the area.
The bureau will continue working with operators and landowners and federal and state agencies to restore sage grouse habitat in the area and work on mosquito control measures to reduce the risk of a West Nile virus outbreak, the BLM said.
Will the BLM halt oil and gas development? No, the bureau said, answering its own question.
The "BLM will continue to work with leaseholders and operators to address impacts to sage grouse and other resources," the bureau said.
Bruce Hinchey is president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the lobbying group for the oil and gas industry in Wyoming. Hinchey told the Star-Tribune the operators in the area are at the forefront of studying sage grouse and restoring their habitat there, and will continue to do so.
He said he's concerned about ongoing depredation of the species from predators, which wasn't addressed in the study. The study authors said the grouse is on the brink of extirpation, or elimination, and Hinchey took issue with that.
"That's a pretty strong word to use," he said.
The sage grouse isn't listed as an endangered or threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, the USFS did decide the sage grouse deserved such protection but that the service needed to focus on other species in worse condition.
Wyoming did its part to fend off endangered species listing by creating core areas where the bird would receive special protection. The areas marked off in northeast Wyoming were put in place in the midst of energy development, unlike in other areas of the state. The program began under then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal and has continued under his successor, Matt Mead.
Under a federal court order, the Interior Department has until the end of 2015 to decide if the bird should be listed under the Endangered Species Act, which would ramp up federal protection.