CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The total area of federal oil and gas leases deferred in Wyoming to protect the greater sage grouse — ahead of next year's expected decision on whether the bird is a threatened or endangered species — substantially exceeds the combined size of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, U.S. Bureau of Land Management figures show.
In Wyoming, the 2,864 leases deferred in whole or in part to protect sage grouse cover 3.5 million acres, or 5,500 square miles. They include 40 leases covering 15 square miles which otherwise would be up for bid at the BLM's regular Wyoming oil and gas lease sale in Cheyenne on Tuesday.
Grand Teton and Yellowstone together total about 2.5 million acres.
Many of the deferred leases in Wyoming and elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain region will become available after the BLM, over the next several months, wraps up a more than four-year process of instituting new land use regulations to protect the greater sage grouse, officials said.
After the updates to the BLM resource management plans are complete, the agency will ask the oil and gas developers who nominated the deferred parcels if they're still interested in drilling in those areas, said Beverly Gorny, a BLM spokeswoman in Cheyenne.
"It's entirely up to them and what their business plans are," Gorny said.
If the companies remain interested, many of the deferred parcels will be offered for competitive leasing under any new seasonal drilling restrictions, well-spacing requirements and other stipulations to protect sage grouse.
Whether those efforts will be enough to keep the ground-dwelling, chicken-sized bird off the federal threatened or endangered species lists remains to be seen. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services faces a 2015 deadline to decide the bird's status for federal protection.
One petroleum industry group remains apprehensive that the sage grouse will prompt tough restrictions on drilling regardless of whether the species gets listed.
"It's clear that the sage grouse is holding up jobs and economic activity across Wyoming and the West," Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said Friday.
Wyoming is the region's top gas-producing state and its second-ranked state, after New Mexico, for oil production. Montana, Utah and Colorado also are home to both substantial oil and gas reserves and populations of greater sage grouse.
In June, the BLM implemented an updated resource management plan for its Lander Field Office that covers much of Fremont County in central Wyoming. The plan substantially adopts a sage grouse conservation strategy pioneered by Wyoming officials.
Sgamma said that while her group generally accepts the sage grouse protection measures in the Lander Resource Management Plan, it worries the BLM will impose tougher drilling restrictions elsewhere in the bird's habitat.
"We're hoping that bodes well for the other Wyoming plans coming out. But sage grouse will impose definite restrictions on oil and gas development in Wyoming," she said.
The leases deferred so far go back as far as a decade. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies are sitting on thousands of BLM-approved drilling permits without acting on them, said Mitch Snow, a BLM spokesman in Washington, D.C.
"There are places that the industry has been approved to drill that haven't yet been drilled," Snow said. "So it's not like you can trace a huge bottleneck specifically to sage grouse."