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Wildlife mapping helps greater sage-grouse preservation, industry growth

Monday, June 15, 2015

Eric Petterson, Environmental Assessment

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceThe greater sage-grouse has caused quite a stir over the last few years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is under court order to decide by September 2015 whether to list the 5-pound bird as a threatened or endangered species. This decision will apply to hundreds of millions of acres and will impact the renewable industries, oil and gas industries, residential housing developments, and mining operations across 11 states.

State agencies have been working to develop, revise, and implement land management plans in a proactive attempt to prevent an endangered species designation of the greater sage-grouse. This is because such a designation will make it more difficult for these agencies to conduct business. The greater sage-grouse only occurs in sagebrush-covered areas found in the western United States. If the bird is declared an endangered species and a project occurs in a suitable habitat, then an entire project—some with budgets running into millions of dollars—can be shut down.

One agency, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has proposed major land-use plan changes in the west for public lands in order to try to avoid a listing of the species. These plans can also indirectly impact land use for private lands.

In places like Garfield County in western Colorado, the decisions made by the USFWS and the BLM could have immeasurable and potentially devastating impacts on the community’s ability to make local decisions about land use. To prepare for whatever the BLM and USFWS determines regarding the greater sage-grouse, Olsson Associates has been working with Garfield County to compile scientifically based and accurate data about the bird’s habitats through habitat modelling.

What is habitat modelling?

Habitat modelling is designed to inform public policy regarding on-the-ground reality, in this case, about where greater sage-grouse protection is truly needed. It’s a methodical process that includes several steps and includes the following:

  • Conduct an in-depth review of scientific literature to develop the “habitat criteria” of the conditions a species needs to survive. Such criteria include vegetation, elevation, climate, terrain, and other variables.
  • Use geographic information systems (GIS) data to examine the actual habitat variables of the study site.
  • Complete “ground truthing” where scientists visit the study site to validate the GIS model with the actual habitat and activity patterns of greater sage-grouse in the area.

The collected data is used in computerized, mathematical models (including a new technique called “fuzzy modeling”) that provide a habitat suitability index. The index indicates the level to which a species could successfully inhabit a study area.

Habitat modelling of the Roan Plateau

Recently, Olsson modelled habitat on the Roan Plateau in Garfield County. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the BLM had broadly determined that all of the Roan Plateau was greater sage-grouse habitat. It is also one of the most important, energy-rich areas in the western United States, and it comprises almost 30 percent of Garfield County’s private lands. Allowing the determination to stand as is could have had potentially crippling economic impacts on the oil and gas industry’s abilities and private land owners’ abilities to use their properties, no matter how careful they were to minimize impacts to sage-grouse habitat.

During Olsson’s mapping, scientists determined that only small, limited areas on the Roan Plateau had the habitat conditions that were suitable for the greater sage-grouse. This determination was contrary to the BLM’s initial assessment and was invaluable in developing local policies that protect the actual habitats of the bird.

The wildlife habitat modelling developed by Olsson was used as the basis for Garfield County’s Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan. The implemented plan protects the bird’s habitats without using broad-brush regulations that unduly restricted activities on non-habitat areas. Olsson is continuing to support Garfield County’s efforts to address species conservation at a local scale instead of using national, one-size-fits-all plans.

Other wildlife mapping applications

Olsson’s wildlife mapping services can be helpful for issues such as the greater sage-grouse, which impacts an entire county and beyond, or to support an individual land-use permitting and planning effort. Olsson has completed wildlife mapping of a variety of species for a wide range of industries. If habitat mapping or environmental site suitability analysis can benefit your next project, please feel free to contact Olsson at 303.309.5190 or epetterson@olssonassociates.com.

The narrow ridgetops of the Roan Plateau, which is home to greater sage-grouse and also where most natural gas development is focused.

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