Feds get just $15K for auction of controversial oil and gas leases on sage grouse habitat

Conservation groups worried about imperiled bird had protested the sale; energy industry buys only three of nine parcels in Utah’s West Desert — at rock-bottom prices.<br>

(Courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) The federal Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday sold leases on three of nine parcels auctioned for oil and gas development west of Nephi — near Utah’s most imperiled population of greater sage grouse.

The Bureau of Land Management’s attempt on Tuesday to auction nine parcels in Utah’s West Desert for oil and gas development was a bust, with just three parcels attracting the minimum bid of $2 an acre, netting the federal agency a grand total of $14,837.

The auction, which targeted nearly 15,000 acres west of Nephi, was controversial because the lands are home to Utah’s most imperiled population of greater sage grouse. Four of the parcels overlapped “priority habitat management areas” outlined under the BLM’s sage grouse land-use plans, now under review by the Trump administration.

Only four bidders signed up for the online sale. Liberty Petroleum Corp. of New York City bought one lease, while Far West Petroleum of Pleasant Grove bought two.

The poor showing at auction on Tuesday suggests the energy industry holds little hope these lands will yield much oil and gas. The leases that sold, covering 4,101 acres, won’t be issued until after two protests are resolved.

The so-called Sheeprocks population of great sage grouse in that area has seen its male numbers drop from 190 in 2006 to 23 in 2015, according to conservation groups challenging the lease sale.

“Sage grouse are like canaries in a coal mine,” said conservation biologist Allison Jones, executive director of Wild Utah Project, a nonprofit group advocating for Utah wildlife. ”Their population numbers are indicators of sagebrush ecosystem function and health, and when they’re not doing well, it’s a wake-up call that it’s time to do what we can to conserve and improve habitat conditions.” 

Recovering the Sheeprocks birds had been a priority under plans adopted in 2014 to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list. But conservationist believe the Interior Department is now angling to scrap those plans in efforts to fulfill President Donald Trump’s vision for ”American energy dominance.”

“Why did the BLM say that Sheeprocks sage grouse need to have their habitat restored but then put that habitat up for auction?” asked Kelly Fuller, energy campaign coordinator with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group. “If the BLM thinks fracking counts as sage-grouse habitat restoration, no wildlife on BLM land is safe.”

Western Watersheds joined Center for Biological Diversity in a protest filed on all nine proposed leases. The Wilderness Society and the National Audubon Society filed a separate protest on just four parcels overlapping federally designated grouse habitat.

But some believe conservationists’ concerns about the Nephi parcels are overblown since the BLM is imposing “no-surface occupancy” stipulations on the four sites where they overlap priority grouse habitat.

Utah officials opposed those restrictions, arguing they would discourage development while doing little to protect sage grouse habitat.

Only one of the four parcels featuring the stipulations sold on Tuesday. Even then, just 13 percent of that 2,169-acre parcel overlapped priority grouse habitat that could not be disturbed.