Important Bird Areas in Wyoming and Cheyenne

IBA sign 1

This is one of three signs at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, a Wyoming Important Bird Area located outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Apr. 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyoming has 48 places that are important to birds”

2014 Update: The number of approved Wyoming IBAs as of 2013 is 44. Find Alison Lyon-Holloran, and information about Audubon in Wyoming, at the Audubon Rockies office, in Fort Collins, Colo., http://rockies.audubon.org/.

By Barb Gorges

Spring means a birder’s thoughts turn to migration and those hotspots where birds will be thickest.

Some spring hotspots are on a national list of Important Bird Areas. Two of those IBAs are right here in Cheyenne. No entrance fees required.

BirdLife International has identified places important to birds on every continent, in 100 countries and territories. Places like Fiji, Romania and Peru. They work with local agencies to help implement conservation and education plans.

In 1995, the National Audubon Society became the sponsoring organization for the IBA program in the U.S. While some places are rated as globally important, such as Yellowstone National Park, others are recognized as important at the national and state level.

Audubon Wyoming has recognized 48 places as important to birds in our state so far. Coordinator Alison Lyon-Holloran is still taking nominations. Contact her at aholloran@audubon.org. Check to see which sites are already in the program.

What makes a place important to birds? It is important to birds during migration, and/or breeding and/or wintering seasons for one or more species, meaning birds can find food, shelter and water and whatever else they require during a particular season. Alison also requires approval from the landowner before reviewing the nomination.

Nominating Lions Park was a no-brainer for my local chapter, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society. We have people traveling to Cheyenne from a 200-mile radius because the park’s trees, shrubs and lake attract so many species during spring migration. At the mid-May peak one year I counted 60 species in two hours.

The nomination stalled at first when the ornithologists on the technical committee countered that we only saw a lot of birds at the park because a lot of people birded there. Yes, but we could probably find the same diversity and abundance of songbirds, if not the waterfowl, in all of the old neighborhoods. We couldn’t very well walk through everyone’s yard.

 

IBA sign 2

Another informational sign at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Photo by Barb Gorges

CHPAS continues to monitor the park’s bird life through seasonal surveys and evaluates the impacts of new park developments.

The Wyoming Hereford Ranch has had a long and friendly relationship with the local birding community. Anna Marie and Sloan Hales welcome inspection by binocular, as long as no one disturbs the livestock, hops the fences or intrudes on the residents of the ranch.

Again, I’d venture to say that other properties along cottonwood-filled creeks in southeastern Wyoming might have similar abundance and diversity. The difference is the Hales.

Not only have they welcomed birders, but they were thrilled to be part of the nomination process. They’ve worked with the Laramie County Conservation District to improve wildlife habitat and in cooperation with Audubon Wyoming to install this spring educating visitors about why their ranch is an IBA. The Hales have also created a little nature trail.

The ranch, as an oasis of wildness on the edge of Cheyenne, will only become more and more important a refuge as high density housing and commercial enterprises continue to move into their neighborhood. Who knew more than 100 years ago when the ranch was established people would want to build houses in cow pastures 10 miles from the State Capitol building?

IBA sign 3

The third sign at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch Important Bird Area. Photo by Barb Gorges

IBA designation doesn’t bind any landowner to any course of action. But it does make people aware that their actions will have an impact on birds. It make us stop and think about beings besides ourselves and we get back to the original question: Does a bird have any value if you aren’t a birdwatcher?

Sometimes it has an obvious usefulness, such as keeping pests under control. If nothing else, birds are a part of nature and contact with nature is being scientifically proven to improve our mental health.

With the onset of spring and many of us are looking for excuses to get outside. Here in Cheyenne we don’t have to travel to Important Bird Areas, even our local ones, to see special birds. We just need to keep our eyes and ears open in our own backyards.

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Grouse geology: find grouse, find oil

Greater Sage-Grouse

The Greater Sage-Grouse lives in sagebrush, which almost always grows atop Wyoming’s best oil and gas drilling prospects. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 2, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to get energy and save our sage grouse: Difficult task lies ahead to keep both resources valuable in Cowboy State.”

2014 Update: Accommodating sage-grouse continues to be a work in progress. The Audubon Wyoming office has now been rolled into the Audubon Rockies regional office in Fort Collins, Colo., http://rockies.audubon.org/.

By Barb Gorges

Is geology destiny? Geology is rocks. A particular weathered rock makes a particular kind of soil which, with water, grows particylar vegetation. Particular vegetation feeds and shelters particular animals.

Thus, a geologic formation rich in oil and gas can be associated with certain wildlife species.

Using overlays last month at the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meeting, Alison Lyon-Holloran, conservation program manager for Audubon Wyoming, showed Wyoming’s oil, gas and coalbed methane fields almost perfectly align with greater sage-grouse habitat.

The sagebrush ecosystem, on which the grouse is entirely dependent, stretches across Wyoming in a wide swath from the northeast to the southwest, avoiding the mountains in the northwest and the grasslands of the southeast.

If you have not driven across the state, it may be hard to believe that so many acres of sagebrush exist, from the ankle-high species on the dry hills to the small forests along riparian (stream) corridors.

It’s hard to believe sage-grouse are so dependent on sage, from hiding their nests in a straggly old stand to grazing on the buds while keeping an eye out for predatory golden eagles.

It’s hard to believe a chicken-like 6-pound male or 3-pound female is so shy and easily distracted that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s drilling stipulations provide, on average, a 2-mile buffer zone around a lek during breeding season.

Those leks are collections of as many as 50-150 males, each spreading spikey tail feathers, popping white-feathered neck sacs and defending small territories. The females stroll through, looking for the best genetic material which, Alison said, may be the same one or two males for all of them.

Someone in the audience asked how sage-grouse are doing. Fine, Alison said, away from the energy development areas. Two wet years have really made a difference in what was a general decline during drought years. However, despite the moisture, they are not doing well in energy areas. It’s too crowded and noisy.

Several energy companies have committed millions of dollars to provide offsite mitigation for wildlife and other land users who have lost the use of lands now in oil and gas production.

It would be nice to think that people could enhance sagebrush habitat away from all the wells, but Alison, who studied sage-grouse for her master’s thesis and has been immersed in the research and issues for the last 10 years, said there are no studies showing how to produce scraggly 100-year old sagebrush stands.

The millions of dollars in mitigation money cannot be used to study why some sagebrush is not attractive to sage-grouse and what can be done to improve it.

It is conceivable, said Alison, that the few remaining healthy sage-grouse leks in Wyoming could be compromised, forcing the birds to be listed as either threatened or endangered—something neither energy companies nor environmentalists want to see happen.

If sage-grouse become threatened or endangered, it would mean more development restrictions for energy companies and much more work for the environmental community.

Of Wyoming’s total 62 million acres, the federal government owns, and BLM manages, 41 million acres of minerals below the surface (and 18 million acres of the surface).

So far, 14 million acres of federal minerals have been leased for oil and gas. Don’t forget state and private oil and gas leasing because 45 percent of Wyoming’s total oil and 37 percent of its natural gas production comes from them. See BLM’s 2007 annual report at www.blm.gov/wy.

In the old days, environmental groups would be preparing lawsuits. Instead, Alison and Audubon Wyoming executive director Brian Rutledge came up with the Greater Sage-grouse Species Survival Plan. They have hired Kevin Doherty, who studied sage-grouse for his PhD, to give the issue the necessary rigorous, scientific statistical scrutiny.

The National Audubon Society has taken notice also, and has made sagebrush one of its top conservation concerns.

Key players from federal and state government have been working with energy and environmental groups to figure out how, in the melee of fluid mineral development, we can have our energy and our grouse, too, here in the state with the most grouse habitat of any in the country. And there are other sagebrush species that will benefit.

The highlight of Alison’s presentation was the Steve Chindgren film, “It’s Just Sagebrush,” a half hour un-narrated look at wildlife in the sage over a year’s time. It was filmed mostly between Farson and Pinedale.

If you haven’t yet traveled a two-track, sagebrush tickling the belly of your pickup, pungent sage smell (not the garden variety) wafting through your open window along with a fine wind of dust as you bump over badger holes and glimpse heavy-bodied sage-grouse taking flight, lumbering like World War II bombers, you should see the film.

And then you’ll be interested in Alison and Brian’s plans to begin an e-list to keep you up to date on this issue, letting you know how and when you can be an effective voice for the well-being of an ecosystem.

Contact Alison at aholloran@audubon.org.

So, is geology destiny? Yes, I think so. While geology (and climate) makes some states suitable for farming, geology has made Wyoming rich in fossil fuels and sagebrush. We just have to choose how to keep both resources valuable.