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Drilling
Sagebrush Showdown
In an unprecedented, pell-mell rush, oil and gas companies are having their way across the West’s federal lands. But neither they nor biologists bargained on a bird whose fate, like the northern spotted owl’s, may bring development to a halt across a wide area. 

This is a story of one state, Wyoming, and of two worlds that are about to collide within its borders. There are the new gas fields that continue to expand and that generate billions of dollars for state coffers. In 2005, for example, the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, replaced its football stadium’s natural grass with artificial turf and named the playing surface Jonah Field, in honor of the Jonah gas field in Pinedale.

Then there is the world of Wyoming’s sagebrush landscape, which has long defined the state’s ruggedness and which shelters scores of unique plants and animals, including its signature species, the greater sage-grouse. It so happens that the booming gas fields—their checkerboards of roads, powerlines, pipelines, compressor stations, and wellheads—are being set down in this wild expanse of grasses, small woody plants, and shrubs otherwise known as the sagebrush steppe ecosystem.

Much of the energy development is occurring on Wyoming’s vast public land and is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees 41 million acres of federal holdings in the state. Part of the BLM’s responsibility is to serve as an ecological caretaker of public lands by maintaining the health of the plant and animal species that live there. But since 2000 the agency has approved more than 17,000 drilling permits in Wyoming. Until recently, BLM managers seemed little concerned with how the wildlife was faring under their watch.  

That lax attitude was put to the test this past summer, after David Naugle, a wildlife biologist at the University of Montana, revealed in a study that the greater sage-grouse was being systematically eliminated from the Powder River basin, in Wyoming’s northeast corner, where a massive coalbed methane (CBM) field has been developed since 1998. CBM is a relatively new technology that sucks up natural gas from coal seams trapped in underground aquifers and, in the process, releases immense volumes of polluted water that is sprayed on the surface or stored in “containment” ponds. The Powder River basin gas field is among the largest in the country, with roughly 40,000 gas wells spanning more than 6 million acres of remote sagebrush country.

Naugle’s findings stunned energy industry representatives and BLM officials alike, since measures that limited drilling near sage-grouse breeding and nesting grounds were in place. But the birds, Naugle had discovered, avoid using sagebrush in the vicinity of roads, gas wells, or other energy infrastructure, apparently due to the noise and traffic. “This species needs big, undisturbed landscapes to breed, spread its nests, and hatch its chicks,” he says.  

The ramifications of the news are still being digested at Wyoming’s highest levels of government. “There were some things in the study that certainly caught me by surprise,” admits Robert Bennett, the BLM’s state director for Wyoming. “It shed some new light on the bird’s behavior and its tolerance level. We’re going to have to look at our management practices and see what’s working and what’s not working.”

In 2005 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) rejected a legal petition to list the sage-grouse as federally threatened or endangered, despite the fact that its population has plummeted to about 140,000 across its current range in 11 western states, from as many as 16 million prior to European settlement. Cattle and croplands were the main culprits at first. Lately, invasive species and development have been chewing up prime sage-grouse habitat as well. Now an energy boom in its fifth year across the interior West is threatening to push the bird over the edge, particularly in Wyoming, where energy drillers and wildlife are hurtling toward a head-on collision. “It’s where the destruction is hitting hardest and fastest,” says Erik Molvar, executive director of the Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. 

There’s no doubt that the status of the sagebrush’s bellwether species will determine the extent of the drilling. “The sage-grouse is destined to become the spotted owl of the ecosystem,” says ecologist David Dobkin, executive director of the High Desert Ecological Research Institute, in Bend, Oregon. After the owl was listed, logging on many public lands in the Northwest came to a virtual halt. “The spotted owl was the lightning rod that attracted much of the attention, but it was the surrogate for lots of other species that were just as important and dependent on old-growth conifer forests,” adds Dobkin. 

“Wyoming is ground zero for the Bush energy policy. Everything that is not high mountains in Wyoming is becoming a major gas play.”

It’s no secret that the Bush-Cheney administration has opened the West’s public lands to energy exploration and development at breakneck speed. According to a recent study by The Wilderness Society (uncontested by the BLM), more than 118,000 new oil and gas wells are being planned for public lands across the Rocky Mountain West, with much of the rush centered in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and New Mexico. Many of the Interior Department officials charged with carrying out this policy happen to be former lobbyists for the oil and gas industry, and they crafted a policy early in the Bush administration that eased environmental restrictions and fast-tracked drilling permits. These actions have coincided with a rising domestic demand for natural gas, which, in turn, has propelled the coalbed methane juggernaut. But in the era of 9/11, Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina, the federally sanctioned handover of public lands—lands that are supposed to be managed equally for wildlife and other uses—to energy companies has engendered little public debate. 
 
The cumulative ecological impact is becoming harder to ignore in a place like Wyoming, where drilling on public lands continues at a feverish pace. In the ecologically rich upper Green River Valley basin, site of both the Jonah gas field and the longest pronghorn migration in the United States, the BLM recently approved the drilling of up to 3,100 more wells. And last July energy companies got the go-ahead from the BLM to sink hundreds of gas wells in the Jack Morrow Hills area of the Red Desert, a diverse, 622,000-acre habitat that supports one of the state’s last sage-grouse strongholds. “Wyoming is ground zero for the Bush energy policy,” says Molvar. “Everything that is not high mountains in Wyoming is becoming a major gas play.”

 

There is one special area, though, that coalbed methane companies cannot enter. About 40 miles east of the Jonah field, as the crow flies, sit 2.3 million acres of virtually pristine wilderness just over the Wind River Mountains, where sagebrush remains almost as unbroken and bountiful as it has been since the last ice age. There are few roads cut into the habitat; elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, moose, and pronghorn abound. But underneath the land sits rich natural gas deposits that energy companies are itching to extract. Last February the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, the two tribes that share this property—the Wind River Indian Reservation—rejected offers by one company, Devon Energy Corporation, to drill for coalbed methane.

Curious about how this could occur in a state being overrun by the energy companies, I visited the reservation in August. The people I met were proud of the decision. “I don’t know anyone else that’s turned them down, or could,” says Richard Baldes, a retired FWS biologist and a member of the Shoshone tribe. The simple reason the tribes could is that they own the subsurface mineral rights on the reservation; many landowners across the West whose properties sit atop energy deposits don’t own the rights below the surface.

Baldes and Wes Martel, a former Shoshone tribal council member, were my two hosts. Both are members of the Wind River Alliance, a local conservation group active on energy development issues. Baldes, who is gregarious and built like a fireplug, never minces his words. When he was with the FWS, based in the nearby Lander office, he had no problem crossing swords with his supervisors, fellow tribal members, or local farmers. (The conflicts were often over water quality or wildlife management issues.) Martel, whose weathered face masks a quiet intensity, is more reserved but no less protective of the reservation’s environment. He speaks passionately about his kinship with the plants and animals on the land.

“We’re fractionalizing, if not removing, the sagebrush landscape with these gas fields. That may be more change than this ecosystem can bear.”

A few days before I arrived, the Shoshone had held their annual sun dance. In it they pray for food and water, and they act out the colorful courtship displays of the sage-grouse, whose males strut and heave out their chests in search of a mate during the spring breeding season. The large speckled bird has also been a staple of Indian diets for thousands of years.  

But what struck me most during my travels through the reservation was the strong attachment Baldes and Martel had toward the sagebrush landscape itself. On my first day they took me to a remote backcountry canyon in upper Dinwoody Lake, where the sagebrush grows thick and as high as seven feet tall. “Sage is one of our strongest medicines,” Martel starts to tell me as we drive up a winding dirt road past the lake. It’s used in teas and purification rituals, among other things. “There are a lot of plants and medicines out there that we use,” he says, gesturing at the landscape. 

We stop at the edge of a butte and scramble up to a perch along the cliff face to examine ancient petroglyphs. Most of them are exquisitely pecked renderings of what appear to be owls, lizards, and deer. Others are of humans dressed in animal garb, one of them possibly outfitted with a bison hat. Martel and Baldes consider this place sacred, and the people who left these drawings to be their ancestors. Spotting a chokecherry tree nearby, Martel explains how the branches were once used to make bows and how chokecherries are one of the foods still used in their ceremonies. “All these things around us, the sweet sage, the grasses over there, some of which are good for washing your hair. . . ” he says, momentarily lost in thought. “Everywhere you look it’s like being in an Indian variety store.”

During the drive back to Baldes’s house, we pass through more dense pockets of sagebrush along scrubby foothills. “Most people traveling through Wyoming or parts of our reservation, they look out and say this is just a desolate, godforsaken country, and it doesn’t have much,” Martel says. “But as tribal people, we believe that everything around us has life, has a spirit like us. All the plants, trees, and animals. Even objects that are inanimate also have spirits and power, just like the rocks we use in our sweat lodges.”

However alien such notions may seem in our modern, utilitarian world, they bespeak ties to the land that are very real and go back thousands of years. By contrast, last February, around the same time that the people of the Wind River reservation were voting against coalbed methane, a poll in the Casper Star-Tribune found that 70 percent of Wyomingites believed that oil and gas development was not harming the environment. Well, if you live in Wyoming, what you see every day when barreling down I-80 is not the spectacularly scenic Grand Teton mountains or Yellowstone National Park but this monotonous, austere expanse of sagebrush—thick clusters of the squat shrub dispersed widely over a grayish-brown desert floor.

Likewise, the damage to the sagebrush ecosystem wrought by gas fields is imperceptible at 70 miles per hour. New roads and concrete drill pads, which can cover several acres, do more than physically fragment the landscape and create travel barriers for animals; they destroy the fragile soil, impairing its ability to retain plant seeds and sprout new sagebrush vegetation.  

For all their spiritualism, it’s not as if the Shoshone and Arapaho have been knee-jerk opposed to all energy development. For decades they have permitted conventional oil and gas extraction on several areas of the reservation, one of which, coincidentally, is the same site where Devon wanted to drill for coalbed methane. But the environmental contamination resulting from CBM, which includes wastewater ponds that kill vegetation and would pollute nearby waterways on the reservation, is a deal breaker for them.  

Still, the tribes’ rebuff to Devon cost them about $2.5 million in annual revenues, money they could have used (even if, with about 12,000 total members on the reservation, the coalbed methane largesse would amount to only a couple hundred dollars a year per member). Many Wind River residents subsist on food stamps. Unemployment is high, and chronic health problems, such as diabetes and cancer, are endemic. “We’re pretty fortunate here at Wind River that most people still place more of a value on the land and wildlife than money,” says Baldes.

 

Many wildlife biologists have been warning for years that the multiplying gas fields in Wyoming are hammering not just sage-grouse but a suite of birds and other animals living in the sagebrush. Some of the loudest alarms even come from within the BLM. “I think we have huge impacts here that we don’t understand,” says Tom Bills, a BLM wildlife biologist based in Buffalo, where the Powder River basin operations are overseen. “There are pronghorn, mule deer, and songbirds that are facing the same habitat pressures as the sage-grouse, but we [the BLM] have no clue how they’re doing, because we don’t have any studies going on.”

The evidence from outside the BLM, though, is starting to accumulate. Last year one independent research biologist reported in a study (partially funded by industry) that mule deer in the Upper Green Valley basin, where the Jonah gas field is located, have declined by 45 percent since 2001, from 5,228 to 2,896. This follows on the heels of published studies by others in 2004 and 2005 that show sage-grouse being extirpated from the same region, and its degraded habitat causing a steep decline in local populations of grassland birds, including the sage sparrow and the Brewer’s sparrow. 

A six-year drought that is hampering sagebrush growth is undoubtedly not helping matters. Less wintering forage and protective shelter in an already harsh desert environment can make survival that much tougher. But wildlife is not suddenly disappearing at a precipitous rate, conservationists assert, because of a drought. “We’re fractionalizing, if not removing, the sagebrush landscape with these gas fields,” says Brian Rutledge, Audubon Wyoming’s executive director. “That may be more change than this ecosystem can bear.”

For the longest time BLM authorities didn’t seem to think this slicing and dicing added up to much. Then, last June 13, David Naugle appeared before the northeast Wyoming sage-grouse working group, which was meeting that day in the BLM’s Buffalo field office. Like most of the seven sage-grouse working groups in Wyoming (there are 58 overall, in nine other western states), the northeast group reflects a spectrum of disparate interests and agendas. It is comprised of land managers and biologists from state and federal agencies, including the BLM, the FWS, and Wyoming’s Game and Fish. The group also includes ranchers, environmentalists, and of course energy industry representatives. Working groups address regional concerns about the bird’s plight and try to devise remedies—such as sagebrush restoration—that everyone can live with.

This meeting was called to hear Naugle’s recent findings on the sage-grouse, whose populations in the Powder River basin he has been studying since 2003. (Partial funding for his study came from the energy industry and the BLM.) By all accounts, Naugle was polite, professional, and diplomatic.   

But there were no niceties that could defuse the bombshells Naugle dropped in industry’s lap that day. He reported an 84 percent decline in sage-grouse during the past 17 years in the Powder River region. (The last time any real data was collected came in the early to mid-1980s.)

The only thing that would save the sage-grouse in the Powder River basin, Naugle explained, was for mineral companies to set aside large blocks of known sage-grouse habitat as off-limits to drilling. The problem is that over the next 10 years, an additional 51,000 coalbed methane wells have been authorized for the Powder River basin alone. Naugle has looked at the maps of where they are slated. “If you were to plot sage-grouse range and lay the sale of federal leases over the top, the two of them would fit like a glove,” he says. “That’s where the perfect storm is developing. How are we going to save sage-grouse when we know their habitat overlays where the oil and gas leases are?”

When I called around in industry circles, I heard a lot about how mineral companies are already involved in many sagebrush “reclamation” projects, which involve “enhancing” and “stabilizing” sage-grouse habitat. When I raised the issue of actually setting aside land that contains lucrative minerals to preserve sage-grouse habitat, the happy talk ended. “I can’t answer that question at this point in time,” said Joe Icenogle, the regulatory public affairs manager for the Fidelity Exploration & Production Company. “I have obligations out there to many different people. I don’t have the power to set aside different areas.”

Some environmentalists have resolved to find a solution. “We’re looking at a landscape approach,” says Audubon’s Rutledge. “We’re going to try to engage with landowners and mineral companies to responsibly approach their leases. And where they can’t mitigate, to set aside land in perpetuity, so that we’re not going to see in five years from now dead areas.”

But time is running out. And nowhere is this sense of urgency felt more acutely than in the sage-grouse working groups, albeit for a reason that goes beyond wanting to revive the bird’s fortunes. Their ultimate goal is to keep the sage-grouse from being named a federally endangered species. As Naugle observes, “If that critter was listed, you would see some of the largest land use changes across the West.” Everything that occurs on sagebrush, from grazing to mineral extraction and home building, would likely be curtailed to protect sage-grouse habitat. “Nobody wants that hammer to come down,” says Naugle.

Despite refusing to grant the sage-grouse endangered status two years ago, the FWS is still closely monitoring the bird’s downward trend. (Oddly, the agency doesn’t have hard numbers for how many sage-grouse remain; it based its decision on how robust the breeding grounds were in the areas that still have core populations.) The die-offs in the Jonah field region and Powder River basin weren’t yet documented when the FWS issued its decision in January 2005. “So at this point we are watching very carefully,” says Pat Deibert, an FWS biologist based in Cheyenne who was involved in the process. “And we’re giving the BLM a chance to take actions and come up with some means by which there can be energy development and proper sage-grouse regulations before we step in.”

 

The drummers are standing on a ridge in South Fork Canyon of the Little Wind River, illuminated by the last moments of the day’s sun. Their voices and the syncopated beats from their rawhide drums fill the canyon, which they believe is alive with their ancestors’ spirits. Up in the mountain just above us is a cave where the Shoshone once buried their chiefs. Like many tribes, the Shoshone didn’t bury their dead in holes in the ground or burn them. “They’d find ledges in the cliffs and bury them way back into the ledges,” Martel tells me. “There’s lots of burials up there. We’ve camped here for thousands of years.” 

You can still glimpse tepee rings across the river, on a bench under a cliff. (These are circles of rocks that were used to hold the edges of tepees down in the wintertime.) Baldes and Martel brought me to South Fork Canyon on my last night at the reservation to share some of the tribe’s heritage. The drummers sang a welcoming, festive song. “Boy, seeing those canyon walls, you can just feel it, the power and the presence,” Martel says softly, peering up at the mountain. “Most people don’t see it. They look at those cedar trees over there and say, ‘Oh, boy, those trees make good coffee tables.’ Well, that’s not how we see it.”

When Chief Washakie signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1863, the boundaries of what was first known as Shoshone country covered more than 44 million acres in five states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Idaho. In the ensuing decades, as western settlers came through, the tribe’s homeland was reduced to 2.3 million acres, which is what it stands at today, making it one of the largest reservations in the country.

The Arapaho, who were not residents when the reservation was created, had been promised their own territory, in Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska, but that never panned out. In 1878 about a thousand Arapaho were taken by military escort to the Shoshone reservation for “temporary keeping.” Historically, the two tribes were enemies. “I think the U.S. government was hoping we’d kill each other off,” says a wry Baldes. The Shoshone and Arapaho have since settled peaceably in separate parts of what eventually became the Wind River reservation.   

And they are united by a deep-seated ethic that has left much of the reservation’s land, marked by 265 lakes and 1,200 miles of streams and rivers in the backcountry, almost untouched.

Later that night, over a campfire, I asked Martel what would happen if the sagebrush on their reservation did start to erode and disappear, as is happening throughout much of Wyoming. “We’re gone,” he says, unhesitatingly. “The plants, the trees, the food, the medicine—everything we use is out here. And we’re the only ones trying to maintain that connection to the land.”


 
WHAT YOU CAN DO
To learn more about the sage-grouse and other wildlife being affected by energy drilling in Wyoming, contact the following groups: Audubon Wyoming (www.audubonwyoming.com), the Upper Green River Valley Coalition (www.uppergreen.org), Friends of the Red Desert  (www.reddesert.org), the Powder River Basin Resource Council (www.powderriverbasin.org), and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (www.voiceforthewild.org/index.html).

 

Bird’s-Eye View
Species: Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)

Looks: Big grouse (males up to 7 pounds) with long pointed tail. Female all mottled brown; male with white neck ruff and black belly.

Behavior: Males gather in spring on display grounds to attract females by strutting with spiky tail feathers raised, white neck and chest puffed out, yellow air sacs on chest inflated.

Range/habitat: Limited to sagebrush flats of western North America, from eastern California to western edge of Dakotas and southern Saskatchewan.

Status: Has disappeared from much of former range. Historical population estimated to have been in the millions; current population probably fewer than 150,000.

Threats: Much habitat has been destroyed for farming or development, or degraded by grazing or invasive plants. Drilling renders even good habitat unusable.

Outlook: Its future probably depends on our ability to protect large blocks of high-quality habitat.—Kenn Kaufman

Land Rush
Wyoming's got no monopoly when it comes to oil and gas drilling. In the next 20 years nearly 120,000 new wells could be sunk across the Rocky Mountain West.

















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