By Colin Tiernan
Via Wyoming News Exchange
DOUGLAS — At 5 a.m., Rod Lebert rolls out of bed and starts preparing for the morning’s route. The sky above Douglas is ink black, but by the light of passing pickups you can make out a severed mule deer head in his truck bed and peeling Game and Fish stickers on his doors. He turns the key and hits the road with classic rock playing through the radio.
Dawn breaks as the long-time G&F warden heads north. He joins the steady stream of oilfield traffic on WYO 59, a rare green vehicle in a monotonous line of energy company white pickups sandwiched in the daily flood of semis. He turns onto a county road, then follows a two-track before parking atop a hill. A flare flickers in the distance, but otherwise this is no-man’s land, quiet save for the steady chorus of meadowlarks. The low sun paints the thick silverygreen sagebrush with a pink glow.
The lek is still a quarter mile away, but Lebert doesn’t want to get any closer for fear of disturbing the sage grouse. He’ll watch them from here. He reaches behind his seat and pulls out his spotting scope from between two guns.
He finds them quickly. They’re strutting about, their chests bright white, spiky tail feathers fanned behind them regally. The two males dance one way, then the other, hoping there are some females in the sagebrush around the clearing watching the show.
Lebert’s happy to see the duo, but they remind him of what has changed.
“That lek used to have 6-10 birds on it,” he says. “I just don’t think that lek’s going to hang on . . . That was one of my better leks.”
For more than 20 years, Lebert has monitored sage grouse leks — areas where males gather and display in hopes of attracting females and mating — every spring. As the Douglas warden, he focuses on the leks north of town, but numbers are trending downward in each of the three best areas for sage grouse in Converse County.
As recently as 2006, Lebert’s best-attended lek had 50 male sage grouse displaying on it. Five years ago it had 30. This year, that number is down to 10.
“I hate to see it, it’s depressing,” he says. “I’ll be honest with you, I think sage grouse are in trouble.”
There are leks in the Thunder Basin National Grassland, too. Dave Pellatz, who is the executive director of the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association, helps G&F collect data on leks in the grassland. He’s been doing it for over a decade, and said he’s seen a general drop in lek attendance since he started doing his annual checks.
“It’s concerning to see declining numbers,” he says.
Back in 2007, Pellatz had a lek that peaked at 65 sage grouse. This year the same lek was down to 14 birds.
Some of Converse County’s largest leks are north of Glenrock. As recently as 2016, one lek north of Glenrock had 58 males on it at peak. That lek was down to 21 in 2018. Between 2017 and 2018, another lek north of Glenrock fell by half, and two leks with more than 35 males at peak lek attendance declined by more than 10 males each.
G&F Casper Area Wildlife Coordinator Justin Binfet says that lek numbers are down at some sites in Natrona County as well.
Sage grouse populations are cyclical, and the number of males at a lek can fluctuate significantly from year to year. The low numbers this year wouldn’t necessarily be a cause for concern if they were an outlier, just one bad year in the up and down cycle. The problem is, the low figures appear to be part of a general trend, not merely in Converse County, but across Wyoming. Since the 1960s, sage grouse populations have been plummeting.
Half a century ago, today’s lek numbers would have sounded disastrously low. Back in the 1960s, there was a Converse County lek with more than 100 sage grouse on it. The 1970s had one with more than 80.
Lebert says that there was a time when seven of the leks he monitored were occupied. Today that number is down to two.
“I’m so frustrated with it,” he says. “I’m getting frustrated not seeing birds.”
There is no singular culprit responsible for the decline of sage grouse in the West in general or in Converse County in particular. Wildfire, invasive species, predation, West Nile virus and other factors play significant roles. As Converse County’s oil and gas development continues to boom, surface disturbance and traffic could become increasingly impactful.
Sage grouse are notoriously sensitive to disturbance. Lebert has seen the impacts the oil and gas development can have on sage grouse firsthand. During a boom several years ago, he lost one of his leks.
“They put a pad in, and the lek just disappeared,” he points out.
Lebert emphasizes that as more vehicles drive by and more roads pop up in the county, sage grouse face greater stress and lose habitat. According to the BLM’s Converse County Environmental Impact Statement, 1,970 miles of new roads could be built during the next 10 years to provide access to new wells if the government allows the 5,000 wells being requested on top of the 14,000 in the pipeline.
The EIS also says that as much as 3.5% of county land could be disturbed as a result of development, in addition to the 1.5% that is currently disturbed. Traffic could increase by as much as 1,863% as a result of the project.
“They’re not going to handle much more,” Lebert predicts. “I’m so low on sage grouse right now. They might stick around, but I just think, eventually, they’re not going to make it.”
Surface disturbance and traffic don’t kill sage grouse, but when humans get too close, the birds often move. G&F has difficulty following population trends when leks shift. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find the new location (biologists will fly the land to have a better chance of spotting birds), and if the new site is away from roads it can be impossible to monitor.
“Some of them will adapt to it, some of them won’t,” Lebert says. “That’s the sad part. This development’s just going to keep moving them. Their population is just going to tank.”
It’s difficult to correlate energy development to sage grouse numbers, but there are some signs suggesting that local energy activity has played a role in population drops.
“It all started when the oil boom started 10, 12 years ago,” Lebert notes, “that’s when (sage grouse numbers) really started going downhill.”
In 2015, in the face of declining populations, the BLM established a framework for handling sage grouse. Most biologists saw the plans as a step in the right direction, a compromise between the best available science and the demands of industry.
Now, just four years after those plans were put in place, the Trump Administration has amended them. Ornithologists and environmentalists told the Budget that there were no scientific reasons for the amendments, and that they have now been modified before they were given a chance to succeed. Four years isn’t enough time to assess how the plans were working, they say.
“We had a very good set of plans that needed to be tweaked, so instead we cut the head off it,” National Audubon Society VP Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative Director Brian Rutledge insists.
“None of the changes that were made under the Trump Administration have any basis in science whatsoever,” Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar argues. “They are just giveaways to industry.”
Dr. Jack Connelly studied sage grouse for decades years in Idaho, and has done extensive research on the species. He says there wasn’t a legitimate reason to amend the 2015 plans; there isn’t much new, compelling data that would inform these changes.
“When you ask, ‘Where are the data?’ It’s really some pretty shallow monitoring data, some short-term stuff, small-scale stuff that really doesn’t stand up to good scientific scrutiny,” Connelly says.
Dr. Matt Holloran has studied sage grouse for more than 20 years and is the principal of Operational Conservation. He says the 2015 plans were already the bare minimum needed for conservation, and the 2019 plans don’t even reach that standard.
The 2019 plans delegate a lot of responsibility to states, which could cause problems, and de-emphasize non-core area. Core areas, or priority habitat management areas, are designated as the best sage grouse habitat, and are better protected from oil and gas development.
“The potential impact is a loss of connectivity among priority habitats,” Holloran explains.
If too much general habitat becomes degraded, sage grouse could be limited to islands of suitable land in the future, which would likely be devastating for the species.
Under the 2015 plans, priority was given to development outside of designated sage grass habitat. Essentially, there was a ranking system, where the best sage grouse habitat was less likely to see new development. That prioritization has been weakened.
“The BLM doesn’t appear to be honoring that priority,” Wyoming Outdoor Council Communications Director Dustin Bleizeffer charges, adding that the state will have to step up now that the BLM protections have taken a step backward.
The best sage grouse habitat on Earth, the “Golden Triangle” near Pinedale, was recently opened up for leasing by the BLM, whereas in the past, the area had been better protected.
Bleizeffer also points out that the BLM has made subtle changes in language that could have significant consequences.
“The federal rollback removed ‘net conservation gain,’ and replaced it with ‘no net loss,’” he explains. The standards have been lowered.
Petroleum Association of Wyoming President Pete Obermueller suggests the critics are wrong in saying that the 2019 amendments will force changes in oil and gas operations in the state.
“They (the amendments) don’t ease restrictions in Wyoming,” he said. “People are distracted by leasing, but leasing does not mean development.”
BLM High Plains District Public Affairs Officer Brady Owens also argues that the amendments won’t have much of an effect.
“There aren’t significant differences between the 2015 and 2019 plans,” he adds.
Even when oil and gas operators have good intentions, drilling activities still have significant impacts on sagebrush ecosystems.
“Oil and gas has been far more cooperative and collaborative in Wyoming than almost anywhere else,” Rutledge says. “Yet we’re still facing these issues.”
Driving down WYO 59, Lebert shakes his head at the heavy traffic, road construction and long patches of dirt marking new pipelines. The difference in surface disturbance now versus last year is dramatic.
“Just look at the country they’re tearing up,” he says. “The disturbance is just unreal out here.”
Lebert has been in Douglas since 1994. He remembers what it felt like to see healthy leks back in the ‘90s, and laments that it stings to see the birds north of town hurting.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world,” he explains. “It’s like losing a kid. Sage grouse need to stay in the State of Wyoming. They should be living here.”
Holloran shares a similar view, pointing out that sage grouse are an important indicator species. As sage grouse go, so goes the health of the sagebrush ecosystem.
“It’s the epitome of a species that has adapted to deal with the harshness of Wyoming,” Holloran offers. “The sage grouse declines suggest our sagebrush might not be healthy, and everybody in the state should be concerned.”
He also notes that Wyoming’s nonenergy economy, including industries like tourism, agriculture and hunting, all depend on healthy sagebrush.
Connelly doesn’t see a rosy outlook for sage grouse down the road.
“I don’t think at this point that the species has a very bright future,” he says, but he and Holloran are quick to point out that all hope is not lost.
“It’s not too late,” Connelly said. “We haven’t crossed the line yet where sage grouse are going to be doomed. But we’re getting darn close to that line.”
There are reasons to conserve sage grouse that aren’t tied to profit, Lebert said.
“You should care about any species that’s going to the point of extinction,” he says. “These animals were here before we were here. This is their land, this is their home, not our home . . . God didn’t put this stuff out here for us to abuse it and make it go away.”