Oil and Gas Development in Western North America: Effects on Sagebrush Steppe Avifauna with Particular Emphasis on Sage-grouse

Publication Information

Clait E Braun
Olin O Oedekoven
Cameron L Aldridige
Publication Date: 2002
Tags: WLCI Related Publication

Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) steppe was once a dominant feature of the landscape in western North America covering at least 243 million acres (60 million ha) (Beetle 1960, Vale 1975) in 16 states and 3 provinces. Most of this vast expanse has been altered by human activity. Estimates of complete loss of sagebrush-dominated areas exceed 50 % (Schneegas 1967, Braun et al. 1976, Braun 1998). The remaining sagebrush steppe has been markedly altered through treatments to benefit livestock grazing including livestock grazing as a treatment, fragmentation (roads, power lines and other structures, pipelines, reservoirs, fences, etc.), and degradation (Braun 1998). More recently, urban expansion as well as development of housing scattered through large tracts has impacted wildlife use of sagebrush habitats (Braun 1998).

While the sagebrush steppe is seasonally host to a large number of avian species (Braun et al 1976, Paige and Ritter 1999), only 5 species (Gunnison and Northern sage- grouse [Centrocercus minimus, C. urophasianus], sage thrasher [Oreoscoptes montanus], sage sparrow [Amphispiza belli], Brewer’s sparrow [Spizella breweri]) are truly sagebrush obligates (Braun et al. 1976). However, at the grassland or shrub steppe interfaces with sagebrush-dominated areas, other species such as Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus), mountain plover (Charadrius montanus), and burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) were locally abundant. All of these species are now known or thought to be declining in distribution and abundance.

Oil and gas developments and their attendant structures including power lines, roads, and collection stations are not recent additions to western North America with
some activity dating to the late 1800’s. Exploration and development activity has tended to be cyclical depending on apparent needs, extraction costs, and price (per barrel or cubic foot). In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the interest was in development of oil shale. In the early and mid 1980’s, the emphasis was in the Rocky Mountain Overthrust Belt. Today, interest in oil and gas development is everywhere in the West where reserves are
thought to be present. Nowhere is this more apparent than in development of coal-bed methane, especially in the area near Gillette, Wyoming. Because of the interest in rapid expansion and development of oil and gas reserves, this paper examines what is known about the effects of energy exploitation on sagebrush steppe dependent avian species and what might be logically expected during and after exploration, facilities development, and extraction. Case history examples are provided from Alberta, Colorado, and Wyoming.


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