Sage grouse ruling ruffles feathers of Colorado oil and gas industry

Colorado oil and gas industry officials Monday were nervously eyeing Friday’s decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designating the greater sage grouse as “warranted but precluded” for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Conservationists, meanwhile, reacted Friday with tempered enthusiasm for the ruling, which they claim means the bird must “wait in line” for endangered species protection behind higher-priority species while oil and gas development continues to cut into habitat in Colorado and 10 other Western states.

sage grouse

“The decision regarding sage grouse will definitely have an impact on our member companies,” Tisha Conoly Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, told the Colorado Independent Monday.

“At this time, it is difficult to determine its full effect until we can analyze it further. However, I hope that many of the steps taken by our industry to protect the sage grouse habitat will minimize the impact of the listing on our industry and the communities in which we operate.”

The ruling means federal land managers will have to continue to treat sage grouse as a sensitive species and keep an eye on its dwindling numbers throughout the arid sagebrush country where the birds once thrived. According to the National Wildlife Federation, 20 of 27 sage grouse populations have decreased in numbers since 1995.

“Unfortunately, sagebrush is the most overlooked and underappreciated Western landscape,” NWF Colorado senior policy analyst Kate Zimmerman said in a release.

“If we don’t pay attention to what science is telling us, sage grouse and other sagebrush species – even pronghorn antelope -– could end up in deeper trouble. Losing this unique habitat would also be devastating for the many people who enjoy outdoor recreation or rely on tourism in sagebrush country.”

Schuller said Colorado’s oil and gas industry has been proactive on the sage grouse front, including implementing timing limitations on drilling activity during nesting and breeding periods; survey work to foster habitat enhancement; and sage grouse employee awareness and educational programs.

“Our members work with the Colorado Department of Wildlife and [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] to establish sage grouse management plans,” Schuller said. “This work is done to mitigate the impact of oil and gas activity on sage grouse.”

NWF sage grouse experts were simultaneously encouraged by the science behind Friday’s decision recognizing the bird’s shrinking habitat and dwindling numbers and to some degree concerned that federal management practices remain up in the air.

“A business-as-usual approach isn’t going to conserve the sage grouse or its sagebrush habitat,” said Ben Deeble, NWF sagebrush habitat expert for Montana.

“Now that the federal government acknowledges the decline of sage grouse, we need to ensure that its land-management agencies reconcile their energy-development practices with the latest wildlife science. And we need strategies to cope with the impacts of drought, fires and invasive species brought on by climate change.”

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