Feds aid pronghorn and sage grouse, but court allows development

By: 
Angus M. Thuermer Jr. with WyoFile, from the Wyoming News Exchange
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland took steps last week to protect a wildlife migration corridor to Grand Teton National Park even as a court declined to constrain a gas field across a different part of the route.
Haaland announced a $250,000 grant that will help secure a conservation easement on the Twin Eagle Ranch — formerly the Carney Ranch — on the Upper Green River in Sublette County. The grant will boost The Conservation Fund’s effort to keep development off the ranch that includes the Path of the Pronghorn, where hundreds of antelope trek annually to and from the park in Teton County.
Only days before Haaland announced her seven-state, $2.7-million wildlife migration and habitat grant program, a federal court allowed Jonah Energy to continue its development of the 3,500-well Normally Pressured Lance gas field, which crosses the pronghorn route. U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl ruled against three conservation groups that contested the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approval of, and conditions on, the 141,000acre gas field.
The targeted Twin Eagle conservation property is on a ranch about 51 miles along the pronghorn path that extends south from Grand Teton. The NPL field is another 66 miles farther south on a route antelope follow to winter grounds that lie beyond that development. Biologists estimate up to 400 pronghorn use the path.
Both the Twin Eagle and NPL properties also are important habitats for greater sage grouse. The NPL is the site of a winter concentration area where biologists estimate some 2,000 sage grouse congregate.
“We remain unconvinced that the BLM has done enough to protect the Path of the Pronghorn and sage grouse wintering habitat,” said Linda Baker, director of the Upper Green River Alliance, one of the parties to the unsuccessful NPL court challenge. “We’ll keep fighting.”
The Department of Interior’s Twin Eagle grant will help prevent subdivision on the ranch of the late Chris Cline, who died in a helicopter crash in the Bahamas on July 4, 2019. The Conservation Fund’s project “will prevent a high threat of subdivision, maintain these migration corridors, protect habitat (including known nests) in the Greater Sage-Grouse Designated Core Area, support climate resiliency, and provide the opportunity for a future wildlife crossing,” according to a summary of grant funding.
Previous owners of the ranch — members of the Otis Carney family — began protecting the property from subdivision with conservation easements in about 1995. But Cline in 2016 began to build a cabin in one scenic and wildlife easement.
The Jackson Hole Land Trust said the building violated the easement and Cline’s builders subsequently took it down. Some parts of the ranch, owned by Twin Eagle Ranch LLC c/o Cline Trust Co. LLC, apparently remain available for subdivision or development that would be prevented by the new conservation easement.
But farther south along the Path of the Pronghorn — the first nationally recognized wildlife migration route — some antelope will have to navigate the NPL field. Baker’s Upper Green River Alliance, Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity asserted in court that the BLM failed to follow federal environmental and planning laws when it permitted that project.
Skavdahl rejected those claims, saying the BLM conducted its analysis properly, even though the project may affect both pronghorn migration and sage grouse winter habitat. BLM had a “reasoned basis” for its decision, which balanced the project’s goals with potential environmental impacts, he wrote in his 47-page decision filed April 5.
The NPL field is expected to generate $17.8 billion over the next 40 years. Jonah Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
The conservation groups argued that the BLM failed to consider development buffer zones along migration routes. Skavdahl said the federal agency did indeed consider migration, that the agency has limited the development density and has and will require other protections for pronghorn.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has not designated a migration corridor through the NPL, Skavdahl wrote. Agency biologists in 2019 recommended designation of a migration corridor for the Path of the Pronghorn. But politicians wrested that authority from the agency before it acted.
“We do know from 15 years of study they avoid intense areas of development,” Baker said of the migrating antelope. “Their migration patterns go through the NPL.”
Pronghorn antelope “have an incredible fidelity to these areas,” she said. “We don’t know why. It’s silly to say they can just go around when we can adjust our habitat more easily than they can.”
NPL also overlaps with part of a winter concentration area where sage grouse flock seasonally. “That’s one of the places they can reliably retire to when snows get really deep,” Baker said.
“It’s the only designated winter concentration area in Wyoming and anywhere,” she said.
The latest data on greater sage grouse in Wyoming indicate an “alarming” likelihood of populations regressing to a 1996 nadir, the state’s former top grouse biologist said earlier this year. Leslie Schreiber, who has since resigned, based her comment on counts of hunter-harvested grouse wings that foreshadow a smaller population this spring.
Wyoming has a healthy sage grouse population, Game and Fish Department director Brian Nesvik told a legislative committee earlier this year. 
“It’s at the bottom of a trough in a cyclic trend that we’ve seen throughout time,” he said of the population.
Skavdahl wrote, among other things, that the BLM met its obligations in reviewing NPL’s effect on grouse and had imposed various conservation conditions.
“[T]he BLM was aware of the impacts to sage grouse, including loss of winter habitat, avoidance of the area, and adverse impacts to the overall population,” Skavdahl said. Quoting precedent, he wrote that environmental law “merely prohibits uninformed, rather than unwise decision making.”
Haaland’s $2.7-million grant program will be matched with another $7 million in non-federal contributions that will be distributed to the states and three tribes for 13 projects. In addition to the Twin Eagle conservation effort, the program will aid two others in Wyoming.
A $280,000 grant to the Game and Fish Department will boost a $560,000 project to improve mule deer habitat in the Platte River Valley and in Sublette County. Another $67,800 grant to the Jackson Hole Land Trust will aid a $702,800 effort to permanently protect 980 acres of big game migration habitat in the Upper Green River Basin along Middle Piney and Lead Creeks.
“[A]s habitats and migration routes continue to be impacted by climate change and become fragmented by roads, fences, energy development and other man-made barriers, wildlife are struggling to reach the necessary areas to feed, breed, and find shelter,” Haaland said in announcing the grant program.
Collaborative conservation and honoring private landowner rights are key points, she said. The program will reflect local needs and priorities, improve quality of life for people and support state-led science, she said, much of it focused on the sagebrush ecosystem.
 
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

 

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