Bob Barrett, an avid sportsman who represented the "public at-large" on the group, now wishes he'd followed Hedrick's lead. "I could have made a grand exit and probably should have as Kirby did," he says. But he stayed on to try to get some protections in place for wildlife.
In particular, he supported the work of the Wildlife Task Group, which Rollin Sparrowe had been asked to lead when the PAWG reconvened in 2004. Sparrowe had 22 years of experience working as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with jobs ranging from research scientist to deputy assistant director for wildlife and refuges.
When his group got to work, it discovered that the BLM had yet to review data collected by industry-funded researchers to see what impact drilling was having on local wildlife. Given the group's late start, Sparrowe tried to make the most of the existing information. One study showed that drilling had displaced 46 percent of the nearly 6,000 mule deer wintering on the Anticline. So the task group proposed that the BLM maintain current deer populations and forbid development on what undisturbed winter habitat remained.
But despite unanimous agreement between PAWG members, including an oil and gas industry representative, Stenger rejected the recommendations. He offered a counter-proposal to maintain "the viability of the herd," which would allow for further declines in deer numbers. Stenger says now that the working group overlooked the other factors besides drilling that can affect deer numbers, such as drought, severe winters and hunting.
When the BLM chose to ignore science that clearly showed energy development was hurting deer, Sparrowe says, it seemed there was no point in working on protections for sage grouse and other species on which drilling's impacts were still murky. So the group disbanded for more than two years, before reconstituting this March.
Other subcommittees also foundered. Linda Baker served on the air-quality group, which found that the BLM did not monitor nitrogen oxides for four years despite committing in 2000 to track the pollutant, which contributes to ozone. The agency has since begun monitoring again. Last winter, the town of Pinedale -- which still doesn't have a single traffic stoplight -- had its first human health warnings for air pollution that exceeds federal standards.
But some subcommittees have made progress. The BLM refined and expanded its water-quality monitoring based on that group's input, George says. And the water-quality group notified the public in August of the contamination of a stock well. Likewise, the agency hired additional archaeological staff and a law enforcement officer to help protect cultural resources. The new drilling decision includes protections for the historic Lander Trail, a spur of the Oregon Trail.
For conservationists like Sparrowe, who now works with the Theodore Roosevelt Conserva-tion Partnership, of which he's a founding member, those successes are not enough. In June, the wildlife advocacy group filed suit against the BLM, saying the agency failed to follow through on its commitment to change management of the gas field despite clear evidence that drilling was harming area wildlife. The group recently amended the complaint to challenge the BLM's latest expansion plan.
Although Pinedale Town Councilor Nylla Kunard echoes those complaints, she's still a PAWG member and wants to see the group salvaged. She's optimistic about the current BLM field manager, Chuck Otto, who took the position just last year. "I just felt like at least he was listening," she says.
Despite the eight years of turmoil, Otto says the group still plays a vital role as a venue for citizens to communicate with the BLM. He promises to more actively forward the group's concerns to decision makers.
Sparrowe doesn't think Otto can make a difference. "Many BLM employees tried to do what they knew was the right thing to do," he says. "According to those employees, they were often overruled from either Cheyenne or Washington."
In any case, Otto's actions will be dictated by the BLM's plan to expand drilling on the Anticline. That document resets the baseline for mule deer and sage grouse at the diminished 2006 levels and allows further declines to occur before triggering changes to drilling operations. The decision also reduces the role of the Pinedale group by following the example of the neighboring Jonah gas field. Under the new plan, drilling companies have promised to pay $7,500 per well into a wildlife mitigation fund. A new group -- made up of government agency representatives -- will decide how that money gets spent to offset impacts to wildlife. The BLM, meanwhile, will evaluate the Pinedale group annually -- instead of every two years -- to decide whether it should continue. The choice will rest with the Obama administration.
Former PAWG member Barrett, however, has given up. "I think they should just stick a stake through the heart of it and just be done with it," he says. "Why continue the charade?"