Natural gas pipeline for Teton County customers will go through ‘core’ sage grouse habitat

Officials say harm can be mitigated, but conservationists worry the birds' mating grounds could still be impacted.
There are several leks, breeding grounds used annually by sage grouse, near some of the construction area. (Jeannie Stafford/USFS)

by | Aug 11, 2023 | Environment

This story comes through a content-sharing partnership with Wyoming Public Media.

Some say providing Teton County residents with natural gas could come at the cost of the local sage grouse — a bird whose populations have rapidly declined over the years. But, federal and state agencies say the harm can be mostly mitigated. 

Construction has begun on a 17-mile pipeline starting southwest of Big Piney in Sublette County and extending to nearby Highway 189. It will connect to a system that already delivers natural gas from the Big Piney area, up north to Teton County. It is used by Lower Valley Energy customers — the co-op utility which services areas near Jackson and Star Valley.

As originally reported by the Jackson Hole News & Guide, some are worried about how the pipeline construction will affect local greater sage grouse. There are several leks, breeding grounds used annually by sage grouse, near some of this construction area, which is partly considered ‘core’ – or crucial sage grouse habitat by the state of Wyoming. Grouse populations in the U.S. have declined by 80% since the 1960s, which research shows is partly due to development.

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But, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the project in 2022 after an environmental assessment. The agency stated that the project “will not result in a significant impact on the human, natural and physical environment, individually or cumulatively.” 

“It conforms to all the sage grouse protections that were in place when the project was approved,” said Brad Purdy, Wyoming BLM deputy state director of communications. 

This includes restricting development during the mating season for sage grouse, March 15 to June 30, and migratory season for ungulates, Nov. 15 to April 30. Protections also include limiting disturbance to at least 0.6 miles from any sage grouse leks.

There are already three major gas fields in the vicinity — the Jonah Field, the Normally Pressured Lance field and the Pinedale Anticline. 

Currently, the BLM and Wyoming are proposing changes to sage grouse protections. The state’s plan would actually add more of the land the pipeline project is on to what is considered the ‘core’ or crucial sage grouse range, which would further add development restrictions.

However, Purdy said if those changes are finalized, the new restrictions would not affect this project, as it is has “valid existing rights,” Basically, it is “grand-fathered in.”

Will Schultz, Wyoming Game and Fish Department habitat protection program supervisor, said the pipeline is underground — out of sight and out of mind for the sage grouse. He said the initial construction will have the biggest impact.

“Proper management and reclamation over time should be able to mitigate some of those impacts,” Schultz said. 

But, Linda Baker, executive director of the conservation group Upper Green River Alliance, said the pipeline will inevitably affect local sage grouse. She said it will likely cause the birds to abandon their mating grounds in the area and that Teton County utility customers should know that.

“They might keep in mind that what happens down here in Sublette County is directly affected by their decisions to use the natural gas in Teton County,” Baker said. 

Construction on the project has to wrap by Nov. 15 because the area closes for mule deer and pronghorn migration.

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