A huge victory for conservation -- one in which Audubon played a leading role -- was won on America's Sagebrush terrain out West this week. It marks a giant step toward restoring the role of sound science in managing public land, and resolving conflicts between two national priorities: increasing our domestic energy supply and protecting the environment.
It began in Wyoming, where the federal government's Bureau of Land Management is the state's largest landowner. Until recently, the BLM's policy for energy development pretty much amounted to "drill, baby, drill."
That shortsighted view allowed oil and gas wells to be drilled every 10 acres, devastating vital habitat for the iconic western species, the Greater Sage-Grouse, and other wildlife. As Sage-Grouse populations plummeted, it seemed inevitable that the bird would soon end up on the Endangered Species list in a last-ditch effort to prevent extinction.
About 70 percent of land in Wyoming provides habitat for Sage-Grouse. An Endangered Species Act listing would likely stop virtually all energy development -- including the wind, solar, and geothermal energy projects so urgently needed to help address climate change -- on all of that land. Local economies would suffer as well. We were headed for a train wreck reminiscent of the spotted owl-logging conflicts 20 years ago in the Pacific Northwest.
Facing this dire outcome, Wyoming's forward-looking governor, Dave Freudenthal, formed a Sage Grouse Task Force of ranchers, energy developers, conservationists, and community leaders to find a better solution. Audubon Wyoming's director, Brian Rutledge, and his team proposed to the task force that not all habitat for Sage-Grouse is equally important for the species' survival. Applying sound scientific principles, they helped the group identify and map "core habitat" areas that are truly essential.
In the end the stakeholders followed the science in designating about 20 percent of Wyoming as core habitat, subject to extensive -- but not total -- limits on energy development. All the remaining non-core habitat areas will be available for energy development with lesser controls.
Once the governor's task force adopted this science-based habitat management policy for the state, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar embraced it, too. The official designation of the policy for BLM land in Wyoming is cause for celebration and optimism.
This is a huge victory for both energy independence and the environment. Nearly seven million acres of core sage-grouse habitat in Wyoming will be protected. At the same time more than 12 million acres of marginal sage-grouse habitat will be available for energy development without the threat of Endangered Species Act litigation. Even in many core habitat areas, energy development can proceed by using existing technologies that disturb no more than 5 percent of the surface area per square mile.
The BLM is now exploring how to expand this core habitat strategy to other states. And Audubon is working to help make that happen. Ultimately, this policy could stretch nationwide. If we act smart from the start by applying sound, science-based land management policies before declining species reach the endangered-species list, we can increase domestic energy supply and have amazing wildlife like the Sage-Grouse.
To see video clips of Governor Freudenthal and Brian Rutledge explaining why this matters, visit our website.