the Normally Pressurized Lance project
and Wyoming’s only official winter concentration
area for greater sage-grouse
have in common?
Both are mainly in Sublette County
and both overlap much of the same large
swathe of sagebrush that appears to be
highly coveted by both man and bird.
Wyoming Game and Fish’s statewide
sage-grouse/ sagebrush biologist Leslie
Schreiber presented an update recently
on the state’s only designated “winter
concentration area” as defined in Gov.
Mark Gordon’s Executive Order 2019-
3: “Specifically, places where large
numbers of Core Population Area greater
between Dec. 1 and March 14.”
About 1,000 to 1,500 sage-grouse congregate
south of Pinedale in winter and spread out
in springtime mainly to the north, Schreiber
told the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission
at its September meeting in Pinedale.
With greater sage-grouse populations in
decline, Wyoming and other states worked
to avoid an endangered species listing by the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015. Many
strategies and studies were undertaken to determine
the impacts of oil and gas development
in Sublette County and other places with
The goal is to maintain and increase numbers
by understanding what affects the birds.
“It is important to note that a lot of research
has been completed on how human development
affects sage-grouse during the spring,
summer and fall but research on how development
affects wintering sage-grouse is sparse,”
She listed three important winter facts
about greater sage-grouse relevant to the Sublette
“The first thing sage-grouse definitely need
over the winter is sagebrush plants exposed
above the snow,” she said, because that is
their entire diet. In fact, sage-grouse can gain
weight in the winters when sagebrush is exposed
in snow because “the leaves are quite
“Second, the birds need to be relatively
undisturbed,” she said. “They’ll flush if disturbed,
which uses up their stored energy reserves.”
The third is “having access to large expanses
of sagebrush,” Schreiber said, adding
that some sage-grouse might move to lower
elevations to avoid deep snow but are faithful
about returning to the same wintering grounds
The Sublette winter concentration area and
Jonah Energy’s Normally Pressured Lance
Gas Field project overlap with about 35,000
acres in common. The NPL project with about
140,000 acres – 96 percent on BLM lands –
is south and west of Pinedale and next to the
Jonah Field. Long-term development includes
a maximum of 3,500 directionally drilled oil
and gas wells over 10 years
The NPL’s 2018 environmental impact
statement “authorizes limited development
in winter concentration areas acknowledging
valid existing lease rights,” Schreiber said.
Cooperative winter research of 100 female
sage-grouse will begin in November with
Game and Fish, Jonah, BLM and others participating
“concurrently with limited development
female sage-grouse in minus 20-degree
weather, she said. The transmitters, which
cost about $98,000, are a “good faith effort”
to begin gathering new winter data. The birds
were tracked and movements mapped from
Feb. 25 through April 5.
“Identification of a winter concentration
area should be based on habitat features and
repeated observations of winter use by biologically
significant numbers of sage-grouse
using a data-driven statistically rigorous modeling
approach,” Schreiber told the commission.
Information from the February collaring
provided the starting point.
Of those 28, two stayed in the winter area
and 20 left to breed and nest mainly to leks
north of where they wintered despite large
leks to the east, Schreiber noted. Six died on
the winter range for about 20-percent mortality.
The 22 females started 26 nests with nine
being second nests – but only two hatched for
“obviously really poor nest success,” Schreiber
said, adding that the small sample size
might be a factor.
“It will be interesting to see when the
grouse start coming back to the winter concentration
area,” she said. “… Winter is supposed
to be a time for low mortality. Is 20
percent normal or high?”
The study will be led by Dr. Jeff Beck at
the University of Wyoming, Dr. Josh Millspaugh
at the University of Montana and
one PhD student from each school. Dr. Matt
Halloran of Operational Conservation is the
“conduit between researchers and the energy
company,” she said.
Jonah agreed to principally fund the study.
“Understanding the energy company’s
mode of development and how that relates to
grouse is critical to providing recommendations
moving forward,” Schreiber noted.
“From the sample of 100 birds, the researchers
will be able to estimate survival
rates and habitat selection and ultimately
make recommendations (for further development).
… Recommendations developed from
this project will likely guide statewide winter
recommendations if and when other potential
winter concentration areas are identified and
mapped far from the NPL.”
Schreiber said two development scenarios
for NPL are possible based on the study results.
“The first scenario reflects current guidance
in winter concentration areas in Executive
Order 2019-3 and BLM plans. The second
scenario provides additional protection measures
that could be applied of determined necessary
based on results of the study.”
The upcoming study has three objectives
– the first to evaluate winter mortality risks in
relation to environmental and human-caused
“Second, evaluate resource selection and
distribution across the landscape in relation to
environmental and human-caused conditions.
And third, provide recommendation for future
conservation of grouse in relation to energy
development within the NPL footprint.”