Mule deer wintering near Pinedale, Wyo., rely on the sagebrush habitat of the Mesa, a 300-square-mile plateau between the Green and New Fork rivers. Part of the Pinedale Anticline natural gas field, where nearly 2,000 wells have been drilled to tap the nation's third-largest reserve, it once hosted 5,000 to 6,000 wintering deer. As winter range goes, says Dan Stroud, habitat mitigation biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, it's always been "the best of the best."
In 2000, the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Anticline, set up a landmark adaptive management plan -- its first for oil and gas -- intended to help protect deer and other resources as drilling proceeded. In theory, it would allow managers to "learn while doing," adapting in response to on-the-ground impacts.
Then, in 2008, the BLM permitted 4,399 more wells and lifted the winter drilling restrictions imposed in 2000, in exchange for measures that would "afford superior crucial winter range," such as directional drilling and concentrated phased development, which clusters wells to reduce habitat disturbance. Operators built a pipeline to transport fluids from the wells, eliminating up to 165,000 truck trips per year and reducing disturbance to wildlife, and agreed to leave 64 percent of the area alone for five years. Meanwhile, the BLM established thresholds that would trigger "serious mitigation efforts" and hired contractors to monitor for declines of deer, other wildlife and water and air quality.
Despite such measures, Mesa mule deer numbers have plummeted 60 percent; only about 2,000 used the plateau over the winter of 2009-'10, below the agency's threshold. This should have prompted the BLM to solve the problem by adapting its management policies, as promised. But a decade after resource managers and conservationists celebrated the new Anticline plan's flexibility, it appears the BLM has no intention of changing course.
On Feb. 23, the BLM presented its mitigation plan for the deer at a public meeting in Pinedale. Rather than require drilling changes to stem the decline, the agency proposed vegetation treatments -- applying fertilizer, thinning sagebrush mechanically and seeding new vegetation -- to enhance deer habitat both on the Mesa and in surrounding areas, a continuation of ongoing efforts. Operators Shell, Ultra and QEP voluntarily put money in a $36 million monitoring and mitigation fund meant to last 25 years, but half has already been spent, and conservation easements to protect habitat on surrounding private land are now considered too expensive. "Now you're telling us you're not going to do anything different even though this has been proven not to work," says Rollin Sparrowe, a wildlife biologist and founding board member of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
The conflict comes down to differing interpretations of what mitigation should achieve. The White House Council on Environmental Quality defines mitigation as avoiding, minimizing, rectifying, reducing or compensating for impacts. "What you don't hear on discussions from CEQ is that mitigation is a tool to reverse an impact," says Pinedale Field Office manager Shane DeForest. "It is not a guarantee that there would be no impacts. It is a tool to lessen the impact."
But adaptive management only works when managers set specific ecological objectives, such as hard numbers for how many deer should be maintained, says Sparrowe. DeForest says there is no target population for deer wintering on the Mesa, and he's promised not to stop winter drilling until all other mitigation treatments are thoroughly tested.
"Mitigation is not adaptive management," says Richard Whitley, former executive liaison for community stewardship and adaptive management for the BLM and a member of the Collaborative Adaptive Management Network. "You can't call it adaptive management if you reach indicators and refuse to change."
Wildlife advocates fear that as development continues, deer will be pushed into even less suitable habitat where they are more likely to succumb to harsh weather, turning the Mesa into a wildlife habitat "sacrifice zone" like the densely drilled neighboring Jonah natural gas field. And by the time the BLM works through the shortcomings of its adaptive management plan, the Mesa's herd may be in serious danger. The lesson to take from this project, says Sparrowe, is that it is an example of failure.
Whitley says the BLM faced a number of challenges to adaptive management on the Anticline, though nothing that couldn't have been overcome with adequate planning. For example, federal laws can make flexible management and stakeholder participation difficult. Officials also faced political pressure, especially after the Bush administration relaxed energy development oversight. It's hard to apply adaptive management partway into a project, Whitley explains. "They've issued permits and leases in the past with very few restrictions on them." As a result, they're "in a tough spot."
Meanwhile, wildlife advocates aren't sure what to do next. "The things that should have been done to prevent this weren't done," Sparrowe says. And this winter, as the drilling continues, the Mesa is enduring the coldest weather and deepest snow in 30 years. The already-stressed deer are struggling to survive. "The future of this herd is actually in doubt now."