Leasing rights on western lands with some of the world’s highest densities of sage grouse were sold this week to energy developers for as little as $2 an acre — the result of a recent Trump administration directive to roll back Obama-era protections for the iconic bird.
Thirty-one parcels in Wyoming containing 57,800 acres of prime sage-grouse habitat are among those being auctioned online by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Conservationists call the area the “golden triangle” because of its importance for the species, which has suffered a sharp decline in the past 15 years as oil and gas extraction expanded rapidly in the grouse’s historic range.
The administration and the energy industry say federal and state restrictions on well densities and surface construction are adequate to maintain the bird populations.
But conservationists sharply disagree. Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society, contends the birds are at “tremendous risk” because of the leases. “I can tell you with certainty that the Wyoming parcels auctioned this week were the most important habitat of all,” he said.
Another sale is scheduled for March 19. In all, more than 700 parcels covering nearly 920,000 acres are being put on the auction block.
The parcels include “pristine country in the foothills of the Wind River Range — kind of a Shangri-La for grouse,” said sage-grouse biologist Tom Christiansen, who retired in September from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It’s just the best of the best in terms of bird density.”
Rutledge and Dan Heilig of the Wyoming Outdoor Council had appealed to Gov. Mark Gordon (R) to halt the sale. The 31 parcels “represent a tiny fraction of the total numbers being offered . . . yet contain the most important sage grouse habitat in the state,” they wrote in a letter last week.
The governor declined to intervene. “I want to stay the course at this time and continue with the process and protections we have for core sage grouse areas,” he announced in a statement Friday. Gordon noted that he and his wife were among the first Wyoming ranchers to sign conservation agreements restricting the disturbance of grouse habitat.
A BLM spokeswoman said the auction this week yielded almost $88 million for leasing rights on 437 parcels. She would not identify the companies involved but said some winning bids exceeded $100 an acre. The revenue will be split almost evenly between the federal government and Wyoming.
Western Energy Alliance, the industry association for energy exploration and extraction, did not respond to a request for comment.
Wyoming is home to about 40 percent of the world’s sage grouse, whose mating dance is one of the most spectacular of any bird. As many as 16 million grouse once populated western plains. But coinciding with increased energy development, their numbers declined by more than half between 2007 and 2013, a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found.
Today there are fewer than 500,000 sage grouse in this country, and five states in their historic range no longer have any.
Rutledge, who also serves as director of Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, became involved in conservation plans to safeguard the birds’ habitat 14 years ago, when it was clear their populations were plummeting. The work was done in conjunction with state conservation agencies, the BLM — which controls a majority of that habitat — and a consortium of ranchers and other private landowners across nearly a dozen states.
The protections took effect during the Obama administration after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to place sage grouse on the Endangered Species list in 2015. The goal was to stabilize or grow populations so the bird would not have to be considered again for Endangered Species Act status.
Restrictions on core grouse-management areas remain in place. They stipulate that well densities cannot exceed an average of one per 640 acres. In addition, no construction on the surface is allowed within six-tenths of a mile of a lek — the territory where males gather to strut and attract females during breeding season. Some leks in Wyoming draw hundreds of birds.
“A single well is not a huge impact on a lek if it is sufficient distance away,” Christiansen said. “But several wells may be allowed because the restrictions call for an average over a large area.”
Grouse return to the same lek, year after year, for their months-long mating ritual. After mating, hens find nesting spots near the leks to lay their eggs. Roads, traffic, noise and other activity associated with drilling can disrupt both.
Conservationists fear the Bureau of Land Management will be more willing to grant waivers and exceptions to the restrictions in the future.
“And it won’t affect only the grouse,” Rutledge said. “They are the bellwether for all the species — more than 350 of them — that depend on the sagebrush steppe for their habitat.”