Winter sage-grouse studies to guide NPL development

File photo

Jonah Energy agrees to partner in gathering data

What do

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

notable numbers.

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,”

Schreiber said.

Three givens

She listed three important winter facts

about greater sage-grouse relevant to the Sublette

wintering area.

“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

each year.

Jonah’s NPL

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.

Observation data

“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?”

Winter study

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.”


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