The Upper Green is dotted with such migration bottlenecks, and only recently has their importance become known. “You lose one of these bottlenecks, you lose the whole migration corridor,” says Hall Sawyer, a Laramie biologist, who is three years into mapping pronghorn and deer movements with radio telemetry and GPS.
Citing Sawyer’s findings, conservationists argue that the BLM should discourage human activity near these bottlenecks, lest development “cork” a fragile link in migration routes. But the BLM has a spotty record so far. Last year, the agency quietly offered 2,300 acres near Trappers for gas drilling. A local conservationist discovered the lease and notified state wildlife officials, who sent an Aug. 2 letter to the BLM, urging the agency to yank the offered lease.
“We view those bottlenecks as at risk. It’s a high priority for us,” said the Pinedale Game and Fish supervisor, Bernard Holz. “We didn’t realize how crucial Trappers Point was until Hall’s studies. It wouldn’t be a good decision to put anything in that corridor.”
BLM officials agreed, but a few days later the lease was auctioned in Cheyenne, anyway. The high bidder, an Oklahoma energy firm known as Continental, has appealed the BLM’s reversal.
Two months before that fiasco, another Trappers-area lease was auctioned, prompting a letter of protest from residents, who argued the lease imperiled big-game migration. One of the protesters was Gordon Johnston, chairman of the Sublette County Commission.
“There was no thought in there for antelope and the migration route in that area,” Johnston said, when I visited his 11-acre spread in Daniel, near the site on the Green River where trappers staged their summer rendezvous in the 1830s.
Johnston’s county has ridden the most recent gas boom to prosperity: Sublette is now one of the West’s leading producers of natural gas, behind only San Juan County in New Mexico. The benefits include some good-paying jobs, low unemployment, and industry tax payments that cover nearly half the total county budget. Pinedale, the county seat, has only 1,400 people, but there are new renovations to the courthouse, state-of-the-art patrol cars, a new senior center, a library addition, school additions, bonuses for teachers, new computers in every classroom. And coming soon: A $300,000 playground and a $27,000 grand piano, both for the schoolkids, and a new community ice rink.
When I ask Johnston about the changes brought by energy development, he says, “It’s what we live on. There are things we have to put up with.” Anyone who questions his core conservative values can talk to the American flag flying high above his front yard, and the portraits of his grandsons, Justin and Morgan, fourth-generation Marines serving in the Iraq war.
“But,” he adds, “I’ve seen antelope coming through here for 50 years. I’d like to see them for another 50 years.”
Johnston knows something about seasonal migration. He came to the basin as a college-educated cowhand half a century ago, moving cattle from dry lowlands to alpine meadows. In those days, there wasn’t much to slow your travel, he says. “You could ride from Farson to Big Piney without opening a fence.”
Johnston has gained a few supporters, among them the publisher of the local newspaper, the Pinedale Roundup. “Sublette County has a rich and proud heritage of oil and gas development,” wrote Rob Shaul, a fifth-generation local and lifelong Republican, in a May 22 editorial. “But today, we’re taking a stand against the future development of oil and gas (on federal land) in Sublette County.”
“We’ve done our role of supplying energy to the nation,” says Shaul, who is also worried by the growth of rural subdivisions. “We camp and hunt and fish here, and we need to protect the wildness and the beauty that’s left.”
But Shaul, Johnston and their allies face an uphill battle. Two miles under the sagebrush of southwest Wyoming lies a sea of natural gas known to exceed 300 trillion cubic feet, enough to fuel the nation’s current rate of consumption for 14 years. According to a recent estimate by the federal Energy Information Agency, natural gas use will rise by 60 percent by 2020. With production declining nearly everywhere else in the Lower 48, public land in the Rocky Mountain states will be expected to feed the demand (see story next page).
It’s not as if the Rocky Mountain states have been dawdling. Production in the Rockies has more than doubled since 1980. Wyoming’s total production, with the conventional plays in the Upper Green, and coalbed methane plays in the Powder River Basin to the northeast, has soared to rank third in the nation, behind only Texas and Alaska.
“In the U.S., Wyoming is the only state showing growth year after year,” says Patrick Pitet, an energy specialist with the Wyoming Business Council. “It’s not only important for Wyoming’s economy, it’s also important nationally, because of the growing demand and decline of production in other states."
Currently, about 2,200 gas wells are pumping on the Upper Green, and there are another 1,000 abandoned or inactive wells. The BLM considers 350,000 acres to be in production, and new wells are being approved by the hundreds. The infrastructure includes a vast network of collector pipelines, access roads, and other utilities.
The BLM has also given the green light to the Upper Green’s first coalbed methane play, which may eventually cover vast acreage, if the Powder River Basin is any model; more than 80,000 methane wells are being installed over millions of acres there, pitting ranchers against energy companies.
To get an overview, I talked with Linda Baker, a 23-year Pinedale resident and the local representative for a coalition of environmental groups called the Upper Green River Valley Coalition. On a clear day with a choppy breeze, we met a volunteer pilot with LightHawk, a kind of nonprofit airline for conservation causes, at Pinedale’s sleepy airport. We took off in David Kunkel’s twin-engine Cessna 340, and circled the Upper Green River Basin, gazing down at the bottomland and the foothills shedding remnant pockets of snow.
From the air, the gas fields are visible scars, but they have not taken over the whole landscape yet; they’re relatively concentrated in what the industry calls “sweet spots,” where the gas can be drilled most efficiently.