Conservation calculus

Are trade-offs in Wyoming's Jonah natural gas field a boon for wildlife?

  • The Carney Ranch in western Wyoming, where a 2,400-acre easement — funded by wildlife mitigation money from the Jonah Field — will protect a vital portion of a pronghorn antelope migration route.

    BLM
 

When Otis Carney's truck first rounded the bend of Black Butte in 1963, the Bar E Bar Ranch unfolded below him, nestled between western Wyoming's Gros Ventre and Wind River Mountains, with the Green River cutting lazy S-turns through rolling sage. "It was pretty much love at first sight," says his son, John Carney, who now owns the ranch with 40 family members.

Though it's still a cattle outfit, Otis, a novelist, originally bought the property as a getaway from Los Angeles, where he wrote for TV and film. Before his death in 2006, he worried about the ranch's fate, given that nearby ranches were turning into subdivisions. "It was always my father's dream to be able to protect the Upper Green," John says.

That dream was also shared by conservation groups. The 5,500-acre ranch is home to grouse, elk, moose and mule deer and straddles the southern end of a bottleneck in the "Path of the Pronghorn" -- a 6,000-year-old, nearly 200-mile-long migratory route from summer range in Grand Teton National Park to winter range in the Green River Valley.

Until December 2009, this pinch point -- one of three -- was the only one on the route not formally protected from migration-blocking development. That's when the Carney family put 2,400 acres under a conservation easement, using funding from another world-class resource: the Jonah Field, estimated to hold 14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- enough to heat 8.4 million homes for 20 years.

Back in 2006, Encana Corp. and BP America Production Co. paid $21.5 million and $3 million respectively into a fund to make up for the environmental impacts of drilling an unusually dense concentration of wells on 30,000 acres in the field. That money has been used outside the field to help put nearly 35,000 private acres under conservation easement. It's also paid for grazing improvement plans on 78,500 acres of private and public lands, plant surveys to monitor rangeland health, and wildlife projects like enhancing sage grouse habitat and altering fences to ease the passage of migrating animals. Those involved laud it as a model for extractive industries.

The original goal was to make improvements on 90,000 acres outside the field. But "we feel that we have directly impacted 600,000 acres, so in my book that's very successful," says Jim Lucas, who until May was the Bureau of Land Management coordinator of the Jonah Interagency Office in Pinedale. That's where the BLM, Wyoming Game and Fish, Wyoming Department of Agriculture and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality dole out the mitigation money for both Jonah and the nearby Pinedale Anticline gas field, which established its own $36 million fund in 2008.

But with unclear protocols for monitoring the Jonah program's effects on wildlife and a comprehensive baseline assessment of the quality of habitat in the Jonah Field three years overdue, it's difficult to gauge the fund's success beyond raw acreages. Without that information, and with only $2.4 million in uncommitted funds remaining, some conservationists wonder whether the amount of money set aside was ever enough.

When Encana, BP and other operators first proposed drilling 3,100 new wells in the Jonah Field in 2002 -- allowing one well-pad every 10 acres rather than every 80 acres to tap the gas trapped in sandstone pockets below -- development was already under way. Five hundred wells had been approved and roads, pipelines and drill rigs crisscrossed the sage, increasing pressure to approve infill. The BLM decided it would be impossible to alleviate the environmental damage within the field itself. So, with support from Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D, Encana proposed to pay for habitat improvements and other projects in places around Pinedale where there wasn't drilling. In addition, BLM capped how much land in the field could be disturbed at once, requiring companies to replant and demonstrate regrowth before carving up new areas. "We thought," says Encana spokesman Randy Teeuwen, "that it was a responsible thing to do."

At the time, some conservationists warned that the model could enable industries to buy their way out of regulations. Critics also stressed that it shouldn't replace best management practices for drilling. But everyone saw that wildlife habitat was already compromised in the gas fields: Full development in Jonah and the Pinedale Anticline has displaced or led to declines in sage grouse, mule deer, ground-nesting songbirds and other species, studies show. A well-stocked fund could help preserve key habitat by preventing development in other threatened areas, especially pronghorn and mule deer migration corridors. And off-site protected areas could serve as refuges for wildlife that might return to a future, reclaimed Jonah Field.