The mule deer herd that winters on the mesa east of Pinedale has suffered a 46 percent population decline since 2002, despite a Bureau of Land Management policy that banned most natural gas drilling in the area in wintertime. Now, the BLM wants to allow several more companies to drill throughout the winter — and some conservationists think the change might actually result in better wildlife protection.
Starting in 2000, the BLM
prohibited drilling on the mesa between Nov. 15 and April 30. But
in 2003, the agency gave Questar permission to drill year-round;
this September, it gave the same permission to Anschutz, Shell and
Ultra. In return, the companies have agreed to bus their workers
out to well sites and to use directional drilling. That will mean
less traffic, less surface disturbance and less habitat
fragmentation, says Shell spokeswoman Deena McMullen.
Biologist Hall Sawyer of Western EcoSystems Technology Inc., whose
Questar-funded study revealed the deer’s decline, says the
winter ban did not sufficiently protect wildlife, partly because it
allowed truck traffic to service existing wells. He thinks wildlife
survival may depend on measures similar to those proposed by the
companies. Vern Stelter, habitat protection program supervisor with
the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, says that his agency
supports lifting the winter ban for the companies because their
mitigation plans offer enough other benefits for big game.
Though environmentalists are willing to see whether the
one-year trial will stem the loss of deer, they aren’t ready
to accept an industry proposal to eliminate the ban permanently.
"Seasonal stipulations are not a magic wand to protect wildlife,"
says Peter Aengst of The Wilderness Society. But, he says, the
winter ban can serve as a "trading chip," encouraging companies to
offer additional environmental protections.