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New research suggests the booming coalbed methane development in Montana and Wyoming may be driving sage grouse away from areas of the mineral-rich Powder River Basin that are being drilled for gas.

Given the current pace of drilling in the region, which includes parts of eastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, "the full extent of suitable habitat" will be developed within the next 20 years, leaving sage grouse with no place to go, lead researcher David Naugle said Wednesday.

"There are going to have to be some tough decisions" made, said Naugle, a wildlife professor at the University of Montana.

The university researchers found that areas in which methane wells are being drilled didn't have the same strong population growth recorded elsewhere in the basin in 2004 and 2005.

In so-called energy leks, where wells covered at least 40 percent of a two-mile buffer around grouse mating sites, the bird population last year was only about 12 percent of what it was in 2000, researchers said. In areas defined as outside development, the population was nearer to 70 percent of the 2000 population.

The findings are preliminary, and the study of coalbed methane's development on sage grouse in continuing. But researchers say the results so far support the notion that sage grouse avoid developed areas, and new development pushes them toward undeveloped habitat. This isn't a good thing, Naugle said.

"Avoidance in some people's minds means, 'Oh, good. We didn't kill them,' " he said. But moving wildlife populations, particularly more sensitive species such as sage grouse, can leave them more susceptible to disease, on less suitable habitat, more vulnerable to predation, "and, eventually, with no place to go," he said.

Sage grouse inhabit large areas of the West. But the health of the species concerns conservationists because of sharp declines. Their numbers have dropped from historical levels of about 16 million in the United States and Canada to fewer than 150,000 by some estimates.

The government so far has rejected listing the ground-dwelling bird under the Endangered Species Act, saying conservation efforts among local, state, federal and private entities are adequate.

The researchers cited loss of habitat, expansion of roads, increased human activity and West Nile virus as aspects of development that can hurt sage grouse numbers. Their work so far suggests coalbed methane development is affecting sage grouse beyond the long-term regional slump in the Powder River Basin that, as of last year, saw an estimated 84 percent decline since 1988, before development took off.

More than 24,800 coalbed methane wells have been drilled in Wyoming's portion of the Powder River Basin, most of those since the late 1990s, according to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

About 580 methane wells have been drilled in Montana's portion, said Greg Albright of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Billings. Court action has led to a temporary hold on new drilling permits for wells on federal leases.

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, said BLM protections in place for the sage grouse are inadequate and that current development isn't compatible with maintaining populations. He advocates a wide buffer zone around leks to prevent the "industrialization of the habitat."

Albright said the study yielded no real surprises. He said the BLM and other agencies, as well as energy development firms, are helping fund the research, the results of which he expects will be taken into account in planning and other efforts.

The researchers say more study is needed on what's behind the sage grouse decline, noting agriculture and surface mining also seem to have an effect.

But Naugle said the findings so far show indicate coalbed methane development is having an effect and that there needs to be a new way of thinking when it comes to development and wildlife conservation.

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