At the eleventh hour of the Trump administration, the Bureau of Land Management today issued a final decision on the Converse County oil and gas project today, authorizing 5,000 new oil and gas wells to be drilled on 1,500 well sites in northeastern Wyoming. The massive project commits almost one million acres of federally-owned mineral estate to oil and gas extraction, including core sage-grouse habitats that were set aside for increased habitat protection.
“This decision is an eleventh-hour attempt to lock in the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda for the next three decades in northeastern Wyoming, a blank check that the oil industry will be able to cash in for pre-authorized fossil fuel for the next thirty years,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project. “The levels of development in this project violate even the excessively permissive 5 percent disturbance cap authorized under Wyoming’s federal sage grouse plan for four of the five Sage Grouse Core Areas that occur within the project area.”
The agency’s Final Environmental Impact Statement states (on page 4.18-64) that surface disturbance would exceed the allowable 5% limit in four of the five Priority Habitat Management Areas (PHMAs) designated for sage-grouse protection as a result of the Converse County Project: Douglas (30%), North Glenrock (13.8%), Bill (5.1%), and Thunder Basin (13.2%). It authorizes 11,119 acres of new industrial development inside PHMA boundaries.
Sage-grouse populations continue to decline in Wyoming, the state that has the largest remaining sage grouse population in the United States. According to preliminary data released by the U.S. Forest Service, sage grouse declined by a further 11.6% statewide in Wyoming between 2019 and 2020. The 2020 lek count of 19,099 birds in Wyoming stands at less than half of the lek count of 43,299 recorded just four years ago, at the most recent population peak.
“Wyoming’s sage-grouse are in big trouble, and nowhere more than in northeastern Wyoming, where the state gerrymandered priority habitat designations so lands desired for drilling by the now-defunct coalbed methane industry could be left unprotected,” said Molvar. “The Converse County project authorizes an intensity of industrial activity that is completely incompatible with sage grouse survival in some of the few priority habitat areas that actually did get designated for protections. With this project, the Bureau of Land Management is now turning its back on those promised sage-grouse protections.”
The project includes a plan amendment that also authorizes exceptions to mandatory timing limitations in the Casper Resource Management Plan for birds of prey. The final decision authorizes a free pass on timing limitations intended to protect nesting raptors and their chicks from drilling activity close to their nests.
“BLM’s decision to approve the Converse County Oil and Gas Project will harm wildlife because it allows oil and gas projects to drill year-round in nesting habitat, instead of seasonally pausing industrial activities to protect nesting hawks, kestrels, ospreys, and owls,” said Molvar.
Western Watersheds Project has begun weighing litigation options to determine whether to pursue a court challenge.
Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, (307) 399-7910, firstname.lastname@example.org