A rare bird is growing even rarer
By Gail Binkly
New research showing the harmful effects of oil and gas development on sage grouse may have implications for shrinking populations of the birds in Southwest Colorado.
A recently released study by a doctoral student at the University of Wyoming finds that drilling contributed to reduced numbers of sage grouse, and even after drilling ceased, the birds failed to rebound.
“This study shows the impacts of oil and gas development to be quite severe and calls for development of a comprehensive blueprint for sagegrouse recovery,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist for the Wyomingbased Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, during a Jan. 19 conference call.
“Potential impacts of oil and gas development to sage grouse include physical habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, spread of exotic plants, increased predation probabilities, and greater . . . activity and noise resulting in displacement of individuals through avoidance behavior,” states the study by Matt Holloran.
The five-year study involved greater (or northern) sage grouse, the largest grouse in the United States. Once plentiful throughout the West, they are now found in 11 states, including Colorado, and parts of Canada. But their numbers are on the decline.
Southwest Colorado has no greater sage grouse, said Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife in Durango. They live in the northwest corner of the state.
However, this area is home to a closely related and much rarer bird, the Gunnison sage grouse, which was found to be a separate species only in 2000. The Gunnison, which is smaller than the greater, probably numbers fewer than 5,000 birds in the world.
Concerns about energy-drilling and habitat loss that apply to the greater sage grouse apply to the Gunnison as well, according to researcher Clait Braun.
“You’re dealing with a different species but the situation would be the same,” he said. Braun, who worked for 30 years with the DOW, now owns a consulting firm in Tucson called Grouse, Inc..
Gunnison sage grouse once inhabited the Four Corners states, Oklahoma and Kansas. Now, like fish in a drying creek, they have dwindled down to eight scattered populations — seven in Southwest Colorado and one in San Juan County, Utah, and most of those are in decline.
The two grouse species — commonly known as sage hens, sage cocks or sage chickens — were once widely hunted for food. (Hunting of greater sage grouse is still allowed, but the DOW ended hunting of Gunnisons in June 2000.)
The birds are best known for the flamboyant mating dance performed by the males every spring on strutting grounds called “leks.” The larger, strikingly colored males dance and jig before the females, inflating their yellow breast sacs and making burbling sounds.
That dance is seen by fewer and fewer people these days.
Greater sage grouse are believed to number from 100,000 to 500,000, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Between 1965 and 1985, they declined about 3.5 percent per year.
However, in January 2005, the FWS decided not to list the species as threatened or endangered, saying that some populations had stabilized and the rate of decline had slowed to under 1 percent annually.
It’s a different story for the Gunnison sage grouse. In December 2000, the species was listed as a candidate for endangered or threatened status, but the FWS has yet to rule on the listing.
“I believe they’re doing everything they can to delay listing until the bird is essentially extirpated,” Braun said.
Recently, he said, the FWS reached an agreement with petitioners to arrive at a ruling by March 31, 2006. A one year comment period will follow before the final decision is made.
Meanwhile, the species’ status remains extremely precarious.
The population of Gunnison sage grouse in the Dove Creek area is down to an estimated 10 birds, a precipitous decline since 1998’s 70 to 100 birds, according to the DOW and FWS. The Cerro Summit population southeast of Montrose is estimated at 39.
A larger group in the San Miguel Basin (which includes Dry Creek and Miramonte) was estimated at 334 in 2005, according to Lewandowski.
“The situation in this area (the Four Corners) is pretty bleak,” Braun said. “Dove Creek is essentially extirpated.
The La Sal population (near Monticello, Utah) has very little chance of long-term success, either.” That population was an estimated 93 in 2004, according to the FWS.
The largest group by far is in the Gunnison Basin, where the 2005 estimate was 3,885 birds, a dramatic increase of almost 2,000 since 2004. However, Braun is not optimistic.
“The trend is all downhill for the Gunnison sage grouse,” he said. “The only population that stabilized last year was at Gunnison, and the DOW has admitted those birds may have been overcounted. The expansion was too much for one year. The 10-year trend is all down.”
‘An alcoholic in denial’
What happened to the grouse is similar to what’s happened to many wild animals. Farmers cleared fields of sagebrush, needed by the grouse for food and cover; ranchers put cattle on the land. Roads chopped habitat into little pieces. Cheatgrass proliferated.
Blue Mesa and Miramonte reservoirs flooded grouse territory. “Ranchette” owners turned loose their dogs and cats; a 3,000-acre subdivision sits right in the middle of sage-grouse habitat near Dove Creek.
“Habitat loss is really the leading contributor to all problems with species that are in decline,” said Lewandowski.
“At the far western end of the state, agriculture has been very intense for many years. A lot of sagebrush and piñon country where these animals evolved has been chipped away. You can’t blame anybody. A lot of it happened before we even understood how habitat affects these birds.”
Energy development certainly bears some responsibility for the birds’ disappearance, Braun said. “We can point a finger at oil- and gas-drilling as to why sage grouse no longer occur in La Plata County, Archuleta County and even farther to the east,” he said.
However, much of the birds’ decline came in the 1940s through 1960s, so not all the factors are known, he said.
Today, most oil- and gas-drilling in the West occurs in sagebrush habitat.
The new study makes it clear that such drilling can be exceedingly harmful to the birds. The study covered sage grouse in a 421-square-mile area in western Wyoming managed by the BLM. Only 24 wells existed there in 1997. By 2004, there were 450.
Lek sites were classified according to how many producing gas wells were within 3.1 miles of them. For heavily impacted leks — those with more than 15 wells nearby — the total maximum number of male grouse declined 51 percent over the study period, while control leks (without heavy impacts) had a 3 percent decline.
“Now the BLM can no longer claim there’s nothing wrong with the way it’s designing and approving drilling applications on public lands,” said Molvar during the conference call. “The agency is somewhat like an alcoholic that’s in denial. We hope this will put BLM on the path to recovery.”
In the Four Corners, the San Miguel Basin and Utah grouse populations live in areas with high potential for oil and gas development, according to BLM studies.
Means of mitigation
Braun said researchers are not calling for an end to energy development, but for mitigation to reduce harm to the birds and other wildlife.
Directional drilling using existing well pads would reduce impacts, they said during the conference call. In areas where leases are “checkerboarded,” well pads can be put at the corners of different leases and shared by different companies. Another important factor, they said, is making sure old well sites are completely reclaimed — something that often doesn’t happen because bonds required for the companies are too low.
“Sure, I think oil- and gas-drilling should continue,” Braun said. “I think it needs to be modified. But mitigation costs money and reduces profits, and you may have to admit you were wrong. It’s hard to find that in this administration.”
Braun said the BLM and FWS could do much to aid the birds’ survival, but he fears the “political will” is absent. Molvar and others called for a comprehensive strategy to save sage grouse, particularly in light of the push for energy-drilling.
“All over the West we’re seeing this stampede to develop oil and gas resources,” Molvar said. “Care must be taken if we're going to have these wideopen ecosystems in the future.”