The state’s effort to protect economic development from federal restrictions for sage grouse habitats has at least one local landowner unhappy.
State government and agencies currently manage habitats to keep the sage grouse from being listed for protection through the Endangered and Threatened Species Act. A task force under the governor studied and marked the core sage grouse areas to provide the birds protection there and avoid federal restrictions on non-core areas.
The purpose to protect the state and landowners’ energy development and ranching interests backfired in his case, according to Doug Cooper.
The 7L Ranch owner said most of his land was outside the core sage grouse area until recently. About a month ago, he saw a map showing that the core area has been extended into his ranch, now taking up most of his acreage.
Recently, the Bureau of Land Management unveiled proposed new maps of core areas in July, based on their latest research.
According to Ryan Lance, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Dave Freudenthal, the legislature spent out half a million dollars on new mapping for finer-scale details about habitats. Since mapping in 2008, they had only basic maps from the game and Fish department of where the leks (sage grouse breeding grounds) are, and where they are concentrated.
They redrew the boundaries this summer, with help from local working groups’ knowledge of the land.
All meetings with state and local working groups were always public, Lance said.
“The governor now has the map that all of those local working groups and the statewide groups said was based upon the best science,” Lance said. “The new mapping that we have and reflects what they think the new boundaries should look like. And we did that without considering land ownership. We just said ‘look, the grouse are where the grouse are and we can’t do anything about it.’”
The State Land Board adopted the new map and the stipulations at their last meeting in August, according to Lance, and the changes await governor approval, which likely will happen soon.
After initially drawing the boundaries, they heard many comments from landowners throughout the state.
“What a lot of them found out through time was that even though it’s a core area you can still develop, except for wind,” Lance said. “We haven’t seen really any decline in oil and gas leasing. We haven’t seen any decline in other leasing even if it’s in a core area. Because people understand that there are different rules there but you can still develop. You can’t develop wind in core areas given the core constraints from the Fish and Wildlife Service. That is the only thing that is outright a no. Any of the other number of things you can still do in a core.”
Because stipulations may be problematic to landowners, they have been working with the federal government, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and others to see if there’s another way to compensate landowners for loss of wind development.
But that usually such compensation comes with strings attached, Cooper said, such as perhaps cutting a significant amount of a ranch’s livestock.
Cooper said that he also was told about the possibility of buying a conservation easement, “which is selling the development rights,” he said. “And that’s a difficult decision because you don’t know whether ranching will continue to be viable. It’s quite a decision you’re being forced into.”
According to Lance’s information, most energy companies still are willing to lease core areas land.
Cooper expressed concern about the significant cost increase of following the stipulations for development, making core area less attractive compared to other properties.
Cooper said he never objected to a relatively small core area in the middle of his property. But finding out about the recent major change sheds new light on recent lost opportunities, according to Cooper.
Formerly, he said, an area of state land adjacent to his private land was designated core area. The state area is no longer considered core area according to the new map, he said, but his land bordering it has become core area.
Clipper Windpower now is in the process of developing on that area of state land, he said. Looking at a map, Cooper noted that it’s strange that the biological boundary they’re trying to assess conformed exactly to the boundary of the state’s wind lease.
He said that Clipper pulled out of a lease offer on his land, which would have initially paid him a total of about $100,000, and later for the turbine and a percentage of the generated electricity.
Negotiations for a geothermal project linked to Teapot Dome also fell through, he said, and he worries that it was because of the remapping.
“It’s not a benign thing,” he added, “especially when you see things evaporate. I’m fairly certain they [the companies] knew we were being traded off.”
“We’re looking into it,” Lance said about Cooper’s comment that the line looks odd because it’s drawn right down the boundary of the state’s wind lease.
Cooper also is worried about an oil project he’s been working to develop on his land, between two wells known to produce more than a million barrels of oil.
But core area restrictions will allow one well per 640 acres, which “won’t allow us to develop it,” he said.
In addition, the new core area designation devalues his property.
“Would you want to buy a ranch in the core area where you were subject to all these stipulations?” he asked.
Resulting core area restrictions on his private land could carry a huge impact, and he doesn’t know how far it will go. Cooper wonders what will happen if his son wants to build a house someday for a family on his land. Will he be able to gain permission for a water well of a power line? Now he may have to have approval before any kind of water project, he said.
Though these stipulations haven’t yet been approved, “right away things are falling apart on these other projects,” Cooper said. “It’s shut down our opportunity.”
What bothers Cooper most, he said, is that he was not informed about what was happening until it was likely too late. He questions why he can be contacted about many matters by the game and fish, but couldn’t be directly informed about the core areas.
“I’m shocked,” Cooper said. “I didn’t think this was possible.”
“We made it as public as we possibly could,” Lance said about the state working groups, “without going out and sending out mailers to every landowner out there.”
The governor’s office sent out press releases to media outlets about the statewide public meetings, which were all open to the public, Lance added.
Those who wanted to find out about the meetings could come, said Stacey Scott, chair of the Bates Hole/Shirley Basin Sage-grouse Local Working Group. Assigned to most of the Natrona County area, the group consists of 12 people representing a diverse blend of perspectives from industry, conservation, agriculture and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Most of Cooper’s land is in the Northeast Wyoming Sage Grouse Local Working Group’s area, but the groups all had the same rules of allowing public access.
“If was publicized on the website and anybody could come,” Scott said, and he added anyone who asked him to a mailing list.
The working group ground rules posted in the Wyoming Game and Fish website states that “All meetings will be open to the public and the media. The group will jointly prepare and issue press releases to keep the media informed of their activities. The facilitator will notify the media of meetings in compliance with any regulations to do so.”
Scott said the purpose of the group was to write a conservation plan to maintain or improve sage grouse numbers.
The local working groups approved the edges of core area borders in the final stages of the state’s mapping process, in some cases recommending border changes up to a couple of miles, Scott said.
“We moved both directions,” he said, depending on the best habitats.
Bob Budd of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust was asked by the governor to chair the governor’s Sage Grouse Implementation team.
“The main driving factor in the boundaries was based in where the birds are,” Budd said.
The core areas represent the best habitat for sage-grouse in Wyoming, he said. Budd added that some existing operations were considered, though some were put in and some taken out. Areas with high wind potential were put in, some were out. It was an intense process he said, “And most of that came from those local groups. They were the ones who had the wisdom to say ‘this is an area where we really need to look at sage grouse, and this area probably is one that might be better suited to development.’ But it wasn’t like a company came in and said ‘I want out’ and they got out. There was a lot of foot stomping and hollering and screaming but when it came down to where we have the best opportunity to conserve sage grouse, that ultimately was what drove the decision.”
Justin Binfet, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist, is a member of the Bates Hole/Shirley Basin Working Group.
“It was done to protect the majority of the known sage grouse leks in the state.” Also, he said, considerations were made to exclude resource development, often where it already exists.
“We understand that there certainly will be individuals who are frustrated,” Binfet said. However, he explained, the governor’s sage grouse implementation team, with help from data collected by the Game and Fish Department, deals with a landscape-scale problem. The beauty of the core area concept, Binfet said, is that it protects a high percentage of all known sage grouse in lek areas in the state, with a minor impact on use of natural resources.
Despite the frustrations, the core area concept “is a far better scenario for the state of Wyoming than economy of the state of Wyoming than a listed bird.”
In 2008, the Game and Fish counted 180 sage grouse and five leks on Cooper’s land. He is not aware of further data collected. According to Binfet, the Game and Fish Department takes new data on sage-grouse numbers and leks each year and the recent changes reflect new data and new counts.
Cooper plans to talk with the governor and also has written to gubernatorial candidates.
“It’s pretty easy to sit down a long ways away and draw curves in a map,” Cooper said, “but it’s a lot harder when it gets down to the specifics of how it affects individuals. I don’t think a lot of people would want to go through this kind of process with their property.”
Since his great grandfather began the ranch in 1889, “We’ve seen just about everything,” Cooper said. “But his is new.”
The landowner said that he’s been a good steward, and now is being punished because his land has better wildlife value.
“If someone would suggest something I could do to help the sage grouse that is reasonable,” Cooper said, “I think I would try to go for it.”
He hasn’t allowed hunting on his ranch since he noticed the decline in sage grouse “when we lost effective predator control methods in the 1970s,” he said. “Without addressing the predation issues, they aren’t going to do anything for the grouse.”
Cooper said he wasn’t concerned with the state efforts to protect the sage grouse because he wants them to survive too.
“Then you find out, this is going to have a huge impact on the way I operate and I’m going to lose the ability to manage my own property.”
He doesn’t want to see the sage grouse federally listed, but at least the federal government would operate under formal procedures in which he would be informed during the process.
“This is like saying that the governor of Wyoming can beat you up,” Cooper said, “and he won’t hit you as hard as Uncle Sam.”
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