SUBLETTE COUNTY – After not having two quarterly lease sales earlier this year, the Wyoming BLM pulled 459 oil and gas leases nominated statewide forward into a new scoping period open through Oct. 1 to determine its next sale later this year.
First the first-quarter March sale was canceled, then the June sale, while the federal agency challenged President Biden’s “leasing moratorium,” seeking “to fulfill its legal responsibilities,” according to Wyoming BLM public affairs specialist Courtney Whiteman.
The first-quarter March draft environmental assessment was posted online with extensive review and recommended stipulations, deferrals and deletions. The second-quarter June sale scoping was put on hold after the state office decided against proceeding.
“We didn't get as far along in analysis on the June sale due to the decision to delay the sale until more direction came from the new administration,” Whiteman said.
On June 12, a Louisiana judge ruled the Department of the Interior could “continue to exercise its authority and discretion provided under law” with its quarterly sales, and Wyoming BLM is following new federal leasing instructions, she said Aug. 31.
The 459 parcels on the scoping list published Aug. 31 hold 568,196 acres statewide.
Sublette County holds 60 parcels with about 94,000 acres in the Pinedale Anticline open for scoping. The Rock Springs Field Office manages most of those compared to the Pinedale Field Office. Many previewed for the March sale include critical winter range, big-game migration corridors, tribal and historic sites and stock driveways, according to the draft EA.
Parcels previously listed in that draft EA are numbered the same in the new list, Whiteman said.
“Once a parcel is given a number, that number does not change,” she said in an email. “The parcel numbers listed for this proposed sale’s scoping are the same as those listed in the proposed March (and June) 2021 sales.”
After scoping closes Oct. 1, Wyoming BLM will analyze each parcel and draft a new EA to publish for public comment; the sale is expected to take place before the end of this year.
Recommended acreage deletions and deferrals for March parcels are accounted for in the new list, according to Whiteman.
“The only parcels you will find in the scoping parcel list are those that were carried forward for analysis, then deferred once the lease sales were postponed,” she said. “Any parcels that have already been deferred for sage-grouse, migration corridors, etc. are not included in this proposed sale list. We will continue analysis on the parcels that were not already deferred in the original EAs.”
The new parcel list and maps are posted here.
The March draft EA’s reviews of parcels proposed for the first-quarter sale are here. The following information comes from the draft EA.
For it, the BLM reviewed 285 parcels and added some “previously deferred greater sage-grouse priority management habitat area parcels from the June (32), September (50) and December (59) sales” of 2020 totaling 426 parcels, it says.
Deferring all parcels in sage-grouse habitats “was considered but not analyzed in detail” because that would not “conform” with the Pinedale Anticline resource management plan, which is to balance development with wildlife needs.
That would “temporarily close areas to oil and gas leasing and development where the field office RMPs have determined that the lands are open to leasing with applicable stipulations to conserve greater sage-grouse and their habitats,” it says. The state’s “core area protection strategy for greater sage-grouse … is based on the principle that conservation of important habitat essential to the maintenance of greater sage-grouse and activities important to the state's economy are not mutually exclusive, according to Wyoming Governor’s Executive Order 2019-3.
Important habitat areas are the core population, connectivity and winter concentration areas designed by Wyoming’s Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, about 83 percent of the state’s greater sage-grouse population. The BLM’s 2015 amended RMPs “prioritize” leasing outside PHMA and GHMA, subject to leasing stipulations.
Wyoming Game and Fish reported that all but one High Desert District herd unit have fallen below population objectives, with the Sublette mule deer herd negatively affected by harsh winters of 2016-2017 and 2010-2011.
The population goal is 32,000 for the Sublette herd, estimated in 2019 at 20,846 deer, 39.4 percent below objective. The Wyoming Range Mule Deer Herd faced “similar challenges” – Game and Fish targets a population of 40,000; in 2019 it was 22.5 percent below the objective.
These were also influenced by “intense oil and gas development on the Pinedale Anticline” where crucial winter range timing limitations were initially authorized in 2005 and permanently available for the project’s life.
“To date, the PFO has not recommended any changes through the adaptive management process for this project. Additional study and coordination with Game and Fish and local partners, is continuing.”
Crucial winter range
“The vast majority of the Mesa within the northern Pinedale Anticline field is within crucial winter range for mule deer. Recent data suggest that … mule deer are not habituating even as large parts of the field are being reclaimed,” a study says.
Eighty-one parcels nominated for March 2021 were located in the herd’s crucial winter range.
Twenty area parcels for March contained crucial mule deer winter range, 84 contained pronghorn crucial winter range; 36 parcels intersected elk crucial winter range.
“Offering parcels in mule deer, pronghorn or elk CWR is not expected to result in new impacts beyond those identified in the base RMPs cited above. Development could contribute to additional habitat fragmentation, activity and noise.”
With low percentages of actual crucial winter range under federal lease, it adds, “Offering 4,979.79 acres of mule deer CWR and acres of pronghorn CWR is not expected to result in impacts not already considered...”
Working with Game and Fish on the March 2021 EA, proposed parcels in state-designated corridors would get a “special lease notice.”
Whether in a corridor or other seasonal habitats, disturbances move wildlife from high-quality to low-quality habitat. These effects will not be considered until development is proposed, it says.
The BLM reminds readers that the proposed sales have “no direct impacts to migration corridors. But indirect impacts from nearby development could increase herds’ pace of movement through the corridor. Specifically, 30 parcels were located in the Sublette migration corridor. BLM would work with Game and Fish if parcels are sold and development proposed.
Although mineral projects “play an important role in supporting the economic well-being of communities,” they could have adverse effects “on other socioeconomic values people derive from these natural landscapes,” it notes.
They could impact communities promoting recreation and tourism and inconvenience visitors with increased traffic, traffic delays, noise and visual impacts. It could also reduce current viewsheds, dark night skies and soundscapes.
Building new roads and human presence could increase poaching and wildlife harassment.
Operations could also cause game animals to move away and if they coincide with hunting seasons, hunters could have reduced success rates and a diminished quality in their hunting adventure. New roads could provide access to the lease areas for recreation but could bring increased poaching or wildlife harassment.
“The presence of oil and gas facilities would likely diminish the recreational experience and a decline in recreational use of an area due to oil and gas development would potentially affect local, state and regional revenues generated through recreation.”
Expanded development would limit wildlife’s dispersal to alternate habitats, creating isolated populations where habitats remain intact. How much depends on timing and activity moving faster than successful reclamation and revegetation in disturbed areas. An increased pace would increase pressure on outside habitats, likely private lands, as wildlife is displaced.
The BLM acknowledged, “Impacts on wildlife would likely occur under all alternatives because of the loss of habitat. The success of disturbed land reclamation, both short- and long-term, would determine the duration of impacts.”
Wyoming BLM officials predicted most leases sold would not be developed and predicted the March or June lease sales would be consistent.
To the extent current development affects big game herds, “those impacts are expected to continue.” But the activity would likely not surpass “significant impacts beyond those reflected in the RMP FEIS.”
Other risk factors would continue.
The draft EA says, “The displacement of big game and specifically mule deer from high-use to low-use areas has the potential to influence survival and reproduction. Should migration be disrupted and key habitats highly degraded over a short period of time, it is likely that negative effects (both short-term and potentially long-term) from displacement of big game from these habitats would occur.”