Sage Grouse Initiative team clarifies disturbance issues in meetingWritten by Saige Albert
“As we have evolved and learned, we are finding some things that are challenges, and we wanted to share them openly,” said Bob Budd, chairman of the SGIT. “We are working through this to understand how to work for groups, industry and the state.”
Transmission and pipeline disturbance
Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioner Aaron Clark brought forth an issue regarding building new transmission lines for power within core areas, citing needs in oil and gas development for transmitting power.
“We put in a system of corridors for high voltage transmission lines because we knew we had projects coming in the state, and we were looking for a way to get east to west with the least impact on sage grouse and other resources,” he explained. “We also included a provision that they were able to construct outside the corridors as long as new lines were next to an existing 115 kilovolt (kV) or larger line.”
Clark was seeking an exception to the rule, which sets a threshold of an average of one disruptive activity per 640 acres, for transmission lines built more than four miles from the perimeter of an occupied sage grouse lek. These lines would still be in calculations for a second criterion, which allows only five percent surface disturbance per 640 acres within the core area.
Though concern was expressed for the potential that this rule would counter-act incentives for building within established corridors, the SGIT determined that such projects were limited and existing disturbance, such as roads, would likely be followed.
One SGIT member questioned the potential for such an action to result in “corridor creep,” saying, “The potential for the corridor to get wider and wider is there. We have to make it clear that these exemptions are not clearance for a new way of business.”
The exemption was granted by the SGIT, as was a provision mandating that a viewshed analysis be conducted from the perimeter of potentially affected leks. As a result of viewshed analysis, any transmission structure visible, including poles and towers, would be calculated as a disruptive activity and subject to the one per 640 rule.
An additional amendment to disturbance calculations is that new pipeline construction would count toward the allowable five percent surface disturbance until the area is reclaimed to suitable sage grouse habitat.
“Right now the incentive in building pipelines would be to get away from road and existing disturbance, because they are well under the five percent criteria, which would create a spider web of pipelines,” explained Budd of new pipeline projects. “This is an attempt to create incentive to minimize disturbance.”
Currently, pipeline corridors are being added to draft BLM Resource Management Plans (RMPs) being written around the state, and the corridors largely following existing pipelines.
Despite increased costs, the new criteria would create incentives for companies constructing new pipeline to build within the corridors created by BLM RMPs.
The public opinion
The Sage Grouse Executive Order (SGEO) and actions of the SGIT have caused concern for a number of individuals representing a variety of interests, and the SGIT opened the meeting for public comment.
Biodiversity Conservation Alliance Executive Director Erik Molvar commented, “If the goal is really to keep sage grouse off the list, then this body will need to harmonize with the National Technical Team and others. To the extent that they don’t, it will be evidence that they are trying to do as little and get away with it, rather than do as much as they can.”
Molvar’s concern dealt largely with inconsistent requirements between agencies.
“The philosophical problem is that the problem is being seen as ‘we have to keep sage grouse of the list,’ not ‘we have to recover the bird,’” said Molvar. “If we can recover the bird, then everyone can be happy. That is the gold standard.”
Molvar also mentioned that the SGIT has a lot of work to do in reforming the bar for sage grouse thresholds.
Other comments by the Rock Springs Grazing Association highlighted the numerous factors affecting sage grouse, and marked research involving raptors as an area that lacks in research and action.
“We are more worried about putting reflectors on fences than raptors,” he said. “We need to get more into the meat of this discussion.”
Private property rights
The rights of citizens were also a concern of several people attending the meeting. Doug Cooper of Casper mentioned private property rights as particularly concerning.
“I strongly protest the use of an executive order to restrict private property rights and destroy economic opportunities on private land. Without a state law establishing core areas, you are acting without the consent of the governed,” said Cooper to the SGIT. “The SGEO is an attempt to rule directly over a large portion of Wyoming by the decree of one elected official, and it allows for no appeal, no comment period and no mechanism for revision, amendment or repeal.”
“The one thing I do want to take to heart is the importance of the knowledge of the local landowner when we look at the density disturbance calculation tool,” said Budd to the SGIT. “Those things can not be understated and we need to recognize that is out there.”
Reclamation of disturbed lands
Casper – At the March 20 meeting of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT), the team discussed the adequacy reclamation standards, mentioning inconsistency between the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and state lands.
Current reclamation requires obtaining suitable sagebrush habitat, which is defined as having five percent or more of sagebrush canopy cover or, if the reclaimed area is within 60 meters of an area of less than 10 percent sagebrush canopy cover, two or more desirable native grasses, one of which is a bunchgrass, and two desirable native forbs are also required. The presence of grasses and forbs is expected to meet at least 70 percent of the standard established by a reference site.
The SGIT determined that standards for bond release in mine reclamation set by the DEQ were different from the determination for suitable habitat, and Wyoming Game and Fish Sage Grouse Program Coordinator Tom Christensen noted the 70 percent standard is consistent with DEQ requirements.
While prescribing use of soil amendments or a prescribed seed mix were discussed, both ideas were rejected, with SGIT Chairman Bob Budd adding, “Reclamation is an art, and there are real advances being made. I don’t think we can regulate it, but we can incentivize reclamation. It is in the interest of the company to get lands reclaimed quickly.”
Until the standard of suitable sage grouse habitat is met, any disturbance resulting from development counts towards restrictions of five percent disturbance per 640 acres.