SPOTTED HORSE, Wyo. — Once again an imperiled bird has become a symbol of clashing values in the Western wilds. Reminiscent of the bitter struggle over the spotted owl, a battle over the greater sage grouse is pitting an industry against protectors of an ancient and colorful species that inhabits the same region believed to harbor much of the West's most promising natural gas deposits.
Biologists warn that the birds, inhabitants of Western prairies for thousands of years could be extinct in 50 years, although lobbyists for the oil and gas industry contend that protection of the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act would deal a sharp setback to the Bush administration's energy policy.
This week, Wyoming's Gov. Dave Freudenthal entered the fray on behalf of the bird, expressing concern about further destruction of sage grouse habitat and calling for a halt, at least for a year, to new drilling around Pinedale, one of two areas in Wyoming where exploration and production has been most intense.
Freudenthal said issuing new leases would be "contrary to the goal of deliberate and responsible development."
He is the second Western governor after Bill Richardson of New Mexico to take issue with the expansion of oil and gas drilling. The governors, both Democrats, are echoing regional concerns that the administration's energy policy is jeopardizing other natural resources, including water and wildlife.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Oil drilling -- A June 10 article in Section A said Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has called for a one-year moratorium on new oil and gas drilling in the Pinedale, Wyo., area. The governor advocated a moratorium on new leasing of potential drilling sites by energy companies on public land near Pinedale.
Experts estimated there were two million sage grouse scattered across the plains of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and northeastern California at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition 200 years ago. The population today may be fewer than 200,000 -- a decline attributed to the loss of about 50% of the birds' sagebrush nesting grounds.
Recently, many of the birds have been dying from West Nile virus carried by mosquitoes, some of them hatching on waste water ponds that are a byproduct of the natural gas boom in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. Millions of gallons of water are being pumped in a process used to extract methane gas.
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would begin reviewing whether the sage grouse warranted inclusion on the Endangered Species List. Conservation groups have been petitioning the agency to list the species since 2000.
Meanwhile, Jim Sims, a former communications director for President Bush's Energy Task Force, is leading the effort by a Colorado-based coalition of western businesses to block the listing.
Sims was out of the country when The Times sought to reach him, but his strategy for opposing a sage-grouse listing was detailed on the coalition's website. It calls for meeting "with key administration players in Washington, D.C. to hone strategic plan"
Conservationists say the campaign to oppose listing is less about science and more about protecting business interests.
"They cast the listing of the sage grouse as the end of the Western economy as we know it. Their rhetoric is a bit extreme," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, a group in Laramie that supports listing. "It is possible to drill in a way that can allow the sage grouse and other animals to coexist. It just costs more, and they are unwilling to pay for it."
There are protections in place, for example, requiring that roads, wells and other structures are kept at least a quarter of a mile from sage grouse breeding grounds and two miles away from nesting areas during nesting seasons. But at least one study -- which was paid for by the oil and gas industry -- concluded that the protections weren't sufficient. Moreover, the field work for that study was conducted four years ago when the well density was lower.
According to Freudenthal, well spacing in the Pinedale area has shrunk from 160 acres to five acres. Across the state, nearly 60,000 new wells were expected to be drilled within the next 10 years. Many of those wells will be placed on land used not only by sage grouse but a variety of wildlife, including elk and antelope, that depend on undisturbed open space to forage, breed and raise their young.
The energy industry fears that invoking the Endangered Species Act would put large areas off limits to drilling. The law could be especially difficult to work around in Wyoming where 80% of the state is considered sage-grouse habitat.
"Listings are not good for the oil and gas industry, anything we can do to prevent a species from being listed is good for the industry," said Dru Bower, vice president of the Petroleum Assn. of Wyoming. "If the sage grouse is listed, it would have a dramatic effect on oil and gas development in the state of Wyoming. It would have a dramatic effect on our ability to develop public lands. It would put us out of business."
Jim Sims' coalition, the Partnership for the West, blames the effort to list the sage grouse on "environmental extremists [who] have converged on the American West in an effort to stop virtually all economic growth and development. They want to restrict business and industry at every turn. They want to put our Western lands off-limits to all of us."
Although the governor of Wyoming has not endorsed listing sage grouse as endangered, his objections to increased drilling, expressed in a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, reflected a broad concern among ranchers, hunters and a variety of residents that the proliferation of wells, if not carefully regulated, "will only serve to jeopardize sage grouse habitat, migration corridors, crucial habitat and other important resources."