Outstanding Public Lands Professional Awards - 2014

Technical/Operational Category

Sue Oberlie
Sue Oberlie

The Lander Field Office nominated Sue Oberlie, Wildlife Biologist, Lander Field Office for the Public Lands Foundation’s Technician/Operational Award.

Sue Oberlie started her career with the BLM as a seasonal employee in 1985. After securing a permanent position in the Lander Field Office two years later, it didn’t take Sue long to start making valuable contributions to the management of resources in the field office. Of particular note, Sue was assigned to assist the lead wildlife biologist work on the wildlife portion of the 1987 Lander RMP. Sue worked endless hours to help edit, collect additional data, and proof-read the entire document to ensure consistency among the various sections.

Many biologists at the time considered the wildlife section of the Lander RMP to be one of the best examples of its time. It was the one of the first efforts completed to designate ACECs for the management of wildlife. For example, the Green Mountain Management unit was established as an ACEC for the protection of elk calving range. Similarly, Sue worked diligently with various cooperators such as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the grazing permittees to develop the Red Canyon Habitat Management Unit for the protection of crucial winter range for wildlife. Sue was also instrumental in negotiations to establish locatable mineral withdrawals in prime Big Horn Sheep habitat near Dubois, Wyoming. The largest and most recognized unit is the Whiskey Mountain Unit containing over 6,000 acres of some of the most important winter Bighorn Sheep habitat in the State of Wyoming. The town of Dubois was a key partner in the effort, including a recent effort (2010) to successfully extend the mineral withdrawals for an additional 20 years.

Sue is currently the lead wildlife biologist in the Lander Field Office, a position she has held since 1995. Sue’s knowledge of the field office, in terms of policy, natural resources, and history have been invaluable to managers, field office staff, cooperators and other partners. In essence, Sue is a walking encyclopedia of the Lander Field Office and its resources and was relied upon in a monumental way during the recent Lander RMP revision. In many ways, Sue was the co-leader in the development of the RMP because of her knowledge of the resources, expert technical and analytical writing skills, and ability to work with agency cooperators. There were countless hours of working late into the evening, weekend work and even holidays in order to meet time-sensitive deadlines, particularly during the Final Draft and ROD stages.

The ROD for the new RMP was signed in June, 2014, replacing the 1987 RMP which she had worked on. The Lander RMP is the first plan in the national sage-grouse planning effort to be released. The plan incorporates the Wyoming strategy for greater sage-grouse including the identification of priority habitat (“Core Areas”). Sue was an integral part of the greater sage-grouse local working groups’ delineation of priority habitat, utilizing her decades-long field work on sage grouse and habitat. She drafted all of the wildlife sections of the RMP including extending wildlife seasonal timing protections to all phases of mineral development including operations and maintenance; all other plans limit protections to drilling operations. Based on Sue’s work, the 2014 RMP continued all of the wildlife ACECs from the 1987 plan and created a new ACEC to protect habitat used by sage grouse migrating from summer habitat to winter habitat. This ACEC was based on sage-grouse research coordinated by Sue which is some of the best four-season behavior information available in Wyoming. Sue was the lead in increasing protections for the existing ACECs as well as the RMP decision to recommend 460,000 acres for locatable mineral withdrawal for the benefit of wildlife and other resources.

Sue was part of the team that drafted the Beaver Rim Master Leasing Plan Area, the first MLP in the BLM and an important part of oil and gas leasing reform. Sue was also part of the drafting of the National Trails Management Corridor portion of the RMP, the first to designate a trail setting in accordance with the new National Lands Conservation Systems Trails Handbook. The Lander RMP trails’ management will be used as a template for all land-use plans involving congressionally-designated trails.

The Lander RMP has become a focal point in designing conservation strategies that work while also being able to meet the agencies multi-use mandate. This is because the LFO contain some of the largest, intact Greater sage-grouse habitat in the western United States. Because of Sue’s knowledge of sage grouse biology and habitat requirements, Sue was able to make innovative strategy recommendations to achieve the very best solution for conserving sage grouse. In fact, the Lander RMP is continually been referred to as “the example to follow” when developing comprehensive management strategies for sage grouse. Rarely do you have a situation as the Lander Field Office has had: the need to come up with innovative sage grouse conservation strategy, the need to have an exceptional biologist that knows the sage grouse’s biology and the need to have a wildlife biologist with exceptional technical and analytical writing skills — this is what we have with Sue Oberlie.

Shortly after the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for the Desert yellowhead (Yermo xanthocephalus), Sue began work on implementing conservation measures for this rare plant found only in the Lander Field Office. Sue was successful in obtaining an emergency closure of the area to motorized vehicles and a locatable mineral withdrawal along with other limits on mineral development. Through the 2014 RMP, Sue designed a conservation strategy to protect the habitat for the plant’s long term viability.

Sue has worked closely with the Central Wyoming College to develop a technical program so that students could receive the kind of knowledge and skills required to be hired in the oil and gas industry. She has attended countless meetings to develop a curriculum that will provide training to obtain meaningful jobs to local residents as well as attending job fairs and other student programs.

Sue’s ability to communicate with a wide range of interested publics is perhaps one of her greatest strengths. Over the years, Sue has gained valuable experience in working with people, especially those with opposing viewpoints. This insight has helped her successfully navigate through difficult issues, reach compromises that have led to improved resource conditions and developed stronger working relationships. For instance, Sue worked with Devon Energy to band and track the migration of sage grouse within active oil and gas fields. This effort helped the BLM and company representatives better understand and mitigate impacts to sage grouse from oil and gas operations. Similarly, Sue established a partnership with oil and gas operators in the Beaver Creek and Madden Deep Natural Gas fields to evaluate various techniques to improve reclamation success for wildlife habitat. Eventually, their findings were used to improve reclamation success after drilling operations were complete.

As with oil and gas representatives, Sue has worked with BLM rangeland management specialists and grazing permittees to develop grazing systems that maintain grazing viability while improving wildlife habitat. During the development of the Split Rock grazing plan for example, Sue worked to mitigate the impacts resulting from the construction of an extensive water pipeline by developing specially designed water guzzlers for sage grouse. Sue has also been instrumental in facilitating sage-grouse research in the Lander Field Office. Some of the most widely cited research results on sage-grouse behavior, such as Patricelli et al.’s ground-breaking work on the impact of noise, were made possible by Sue’s efforts to authorize federal lands for the research. In essence, Sue has worked tirelessly to ensure the protection of valuable wildlife habitat while maintaining good working relationships with industry representatives and academia.

Over the years, Sue has been active in the various professional wildlife society organizations, been a charter member of the Whiskey Mountain Big Horn Technical Committee, Sweetwater Sage Grouse Local Working Group, Wyoming Wildlife Society and various other committees. Throughout her career, Sue has embodied the spirit and determination of what the Public Lands Foundation’s Technician/Operational Award embodies. Sue is nearing the end of a spectacular BLM career. The selection committee will likely get numerous other deserving nominations for this award, but Sue is truly deserving of the recognition because of her steady, consistent, and unwavering commitment to taking care of the land, being able to work with people and leaving a legacy to be proud of. “When you take a place as rich with history, culture, beauty and natural resources as the Lander region, it’s absolutely critical that we manage these public lands in a way that makes sense for Wyoming now and far into the future” (Neil Kornze, BLM Director, June 26, 2014 during the signing of the Lander RMP)”,