Report: Sage Grouse Need 3-mile Buffer from Drilling

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by Matthew Brown, Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A government report with significant implications for the U.S. energy industry says the breeding grounds of a struggling bird species need a 3-mile or larger buffer from oil and gas drilling, wind farms and solar projects.

The study comes as the Obama administration weighs new protections for the greater sage grouse. The ground-dwelling bird ranges across 11 western states.

A 3-mile buffer is a much larger protective area than the no-occupancy zones where drilling and other activity is prohibited under some state and federal land management plans.

Those plans also contain more nuanced provisions that backers say will protect sage grouse, such as seasonal restrictions on drilling and limits on the number of oil and gas wells within key sage grouse habitat.

But some wildlife advocates say too much development is being allowed under those plans, undermining efforts to help grouse. Such opposition could be bolstered by Friday's report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Greater sage grouse populations dropped sharply in recent decades due to disease, pressure from the energy industry, wildfires and other factors.

The new report comes as state and federal officials scramble to come up with conservation measures to protect the grouse ahead of a court-ordered September 2015 decision on protections.

The USGS did not recommend specific management recommendations. But survey scientists said it should help the Interior Department as it crafts a conservation strategy for the birds.

A related bird, the Gunnison sage grouse of Utah and Colorado, received federal protection as a threatened species on Nov. 12. An adviser for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said Friday that the state plans to challenge the decision in court.

The USGS report on the more-common greater sage grouse represents a compilation of scientific studies aimed at seeing what it takes to protect the bird.

It was requested by the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees millions of acres of sage grouse habitat and also regulates the energy industry across much of the West.

It said a minimum buffer extending to a 3.1-mile radius around sage grouse breeding sites would provide considerable protections for the bird. That radius would equal a circle around the leks covering 30 square miles.

The report suggests a maximum buffer of 5 miles.

By comparison, Montana and Wyoming have adopted management plans for the bird that call for a no-surface occupancy zone of six-tenths of a mile around breeding sites, or leks, in key sage grouse habitat. That's an area of slightly more than one square mile.

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Source:  Billings Gazette

Posted by Jami Howell


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