A model for wildlife-friendly energy development
Newly announced changes to United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leasing policies offer enhanced protection for Near Threatened Greater Sage-grouse Centrocercus urophasianus, and an innovative model for wildlife-friendly energy development. Other wildlife that shares the western sagebrush ecosystem will also benefit.
The BLM's new policy follows protests by groups including Audubon (BirdLife in the USA) at the federal government's push to lease nearly 280,000 hectares of important habitat in Wyoming for oil and gas development.
Previous energy development was a major factor in reducing Greater Sage-Grouse populations to 10-20% of historic levels. Sage Thrasher Oreoscoptes montanus, Sage Sparrow Amphispiza belli, Brewer's Sparrow Spizella breweri and other sagebrush-dependent species have also declined.
The new protocol embraces recommendations developed by a stakeholder task force convened by Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal. Audubon helped shape the group's science-based approach, by mapping Greater Sage-grouse habitat and contributing expertise on the species's natural history and life cycle. Wyoming is thought to hold 54% of the remaining global population.
The rules limit energy development in the 20% of Wyoming land designated as 'sage-grouse core areas'. Oil or gas drilling will now be limited to one well 'pad' per section (one square mile) across 2.8 million hectares of Wyoming's designated core Sage-grouse habitat. Current rules, which will remain in effect for the 80% of Wyoming land outside the core areas, permit as many as 60 pads per square mile.
"By ensuring that these decisions protect wildlife and habitat, we can minimise site conflicts and expedite the process of green energy development" —John Flicker, Audubon
"This is a landmark decision for wildlife, and for the return of sound science to federal policymaking, showing that we can have energy development and protect vital habitat at the same time", said Brian Rutledge, Audubon Wyoming's Executive Director, and a key proponent of the core area approach.
Wind energy development will be effectively precluded inside core areas, due to the scale of habitat disruption. Audubon expects the new rules to redirect wind development to land outside core areas. This will reduce potential hurdles for much-needed renewable energy.
These new rules offer greater predictability in land use planning, and will help avoid an Endangered Species Act listing to save the iconic Greater Sage-grouse. Such a listing could dramatically curtail energy development and other economic activity across the state.
"The core-areas approach recognises the importance of wildlife and fragile landscapes, yet still encourages energy independence and economic growth for our communities", said Rutledge. "It was born in the West, but imagine the benefits for birds, wildlife and thoughtful energy development in California, Pennsylvania or Texas."
Audubon urges the BLM to further the process through expansion of the new rules across the range of the sage-grouse, covering 11 western states and 24 million hectares of federal land. Montana and Colorado are already exploring stakeholder-crafted core-area approaches.
Nationally, Audubon works with Google Earth and the National Resources Defense Council to provide maps and web resources to help decision-makers make informed choices about sites for wind turbines and transmission lines. "By ensuring that these decisions protect wildlife and habitat, we can minimise site conflicts and expedite the process of green energy development", said Audubon President John Flicker.
BirdLife comprises more than 100 conservation organisations working together to promote sustainable living as a means to conserve biodiversity.