Sage grouse, pronghorn concerns spark lawsuit over gas field

JACKSON — Environmental attorneys have their sights set on a 3,500-well gas field that overlaps with the state of Wyoming’s only recognized sage grouse winter concentration area and a migration path that’s used by pronghorn that dwell in Jackson Hole.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming targets the Bureau of Land Management for allegedly violating the National Environmental Policy Act when the agency approved Jonah Energy’s potentially $18 billion Normally Pressured Lance gas field. While reviewing effects of the gas field with an environmental impact statement, the BLM allegedly failed to take a “hard look” — which NEPA requires — at impacts to pronghorn and sage grouse, Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Wendy Park contended.

“We’re very concerned that the government, in reviewing this project, failed to include any concrete measures to protect the pronghorn migration route,” Park told the Jackson Hole Daily.

The northern half of the 100-plus-mile route she alludes to, known as the “Path of the Pronghorn,” is protected where it cuts through the Bridger-Teton National Forest on the way to Grand Teton National Park and National Elk Refuge summer grounds.

But the southern reaches of that migration — including through the Anticline and Jonah gas fields — have escaped recognition and protective designation for years, although a corridor was proposed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The southern extent of the ancient route figures to be one of the first migrations to be assessed through the new process prescribed in Gov. Mark Gordon’s executive order about migration, signed just last week.

In the meantime, Jonah Energy is starting to slowly drill out the Normally Pressured Lance field. Wyoming Public Radio reported last week that one well approval was vacated by the BLM after complaints from environmental groups watchdogging the drilling application process.

Those same groups signed on to the new legal complaint: the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and Upper Green River Alliance.

The litigation actually started in federal district court in Idaho in July 2019, and was a part of a broader lawsuit about oil and gas leasing in sage grouse habitat all around the West. The judge severed out portions of that complaint about the NPL project, directing it to a Wyoming court, Park said.

Sage grouse winter concentration areas comprise nearly a fifth of the NPL’s 220 square miles, covering about 42 square miles. About a third — 75 square miles — is classified as core sage grouse habitat, and those areas are protected from dense drilling by a separate gubernatorial executive order specific to sage grouse. The same protections don’t apply to the winter concentration areas, which Park described as “highly unique.”

“It is extremely important that development be controlled and regulated in such a manner that sage grouse can continue to survive in this area,” Park said. “Unfortunately, the BLM, in approving this project, failed to do any analyses of the impact of drilling on winter concentration areas. They essentially said that they would do studies concurrent with development, because they weren’t sure what the impacts would be.”

Using a project as a test for impacts — rather than assessing and addressing them ahead of time — is antithetical to the National Environmental Policy Act, Park said.

Some 2,000 sage grouse use the NPL winter concentration grounds, which is a big number for a species that may number less than 500,000 total remaining animals on Earth. Jonah Energy representative Paul Ulrich told the online news outlet WyoFile in 2015 that protecting winter concentration areas with the core area policy “kills the project.” Ulrich did not return a phone call seeking comment by press time Wednesday afternoon.

Sublette County resident Linda Baker, who’s among the plaintiffs, said the hundreds of sage grouse that gather in the winter concentration areas are an “amazing sight to see.” She said the same is true of the pronghorn migration paths, which have been cut into the earth amid the sagebrush steppe over eons — since “before the invention of the wheel.”

“It’s a traditional route, it’s invariant,” Baker said, “and if we lose it, the potential to lose the migratory sector of the herd is great.”