In northwestern Colorado’s Piceance Basin, the sage and juniper landscape is home to flocks of the dwindling greater sage grouse and one of the country’s largest migratory mule deer herds. It also happens to hold one of the nation’s largest natural gas reserves. Now, Colorado Division of Wildlife researchers are beginning a $1.3 million-per-year study on how gas companies can minimize their impacts on the basin’s wildlife.

The study is an effort to be proactive about natural gas extraction on wild lands, says Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “Our challenge as an agency,” he says, “is whether to stand back and say, ‘This can’t happen,’ while it does, or take a good look at it and say, ‘It’s going on. Now how can we do it well?’”

The Central Piceance Basin Research Project, largely funded by energy companies, will focus on how different habitat restoration and mitigation efforts help native species. After carrying out various soil and plant treatments and aquatic projects, researchers will gauge the responses of mule deer, sage grouse and the habitat in general.

To assess the impacts of drilling techniques and habitat improvements on mule deer, researchers plan to measure fawn survival rates and the body condition of does over the course of the winter. Biologists will also observe herd movement and densities.

Researchers will also create seasonal habitat maps to help companies avoid the ancestral mating grounds, or leks, of sage grouse – which are being reconsidered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. In addition, they’ll look at how their habitat manipulations affect sage grouse survival, reproduction and movement.

“If science bears out that there are some operational changes that we need to make that aren’t addressed by what we’re currently doing, certainly we’ll be willing to go along and contribute to any changes. That’s the reason we’re funding the study,” says Susan Alvillar, a spokeswoman for Williams Oil Company, one of the study’s donors.

But some question the need for the study and the companies’ motivations. “We call it a rope-a-dope,” says Steve Belinda, an Energy Policy Manager with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and former Bureau of Land Management biologist. “There’s more information out there already than companies want to use.” Belinda cites similar studies on the Pinedale Anticline — a high-use mule deer winter range in Wyoming with extensive gas development — that verified the unavoidable negative impacts of energy development on wildlife. Preliminary reports from one study on the Anticline found that a mule deer population near gas rigs fell by 46 percent between 2002 and 2005, much more than populations in a nearby area without energy development.

Sage grouse studies in the same region suggest that male grouse numbers declined as much as 51 percent where drillers didn’t maintain a respectful distance from grouse leks. “Those (Piceance) deer are the same subspecies of deer that you have in Pinedale,” says Belinda. “(Gas companies) are using the (Piceance) study to buy more time for their current procedures even though the Pinedale study should be applicable.”

The Pinedale studies have inspired some change in local drilling practices, says Hall Sawyer, a biologist who works in the area. To reduce human activity that disturbs deer, one company has begun to pipe drilling byproducts off well pads instead of trucking the material in multiple trips, he says. “It’s effective in the sense that it minimizes the disturbance to the deer, but it doesn’t eliminate it.”

But Belinda believes most companies ignored the Pinedale results. “Right now you have a point where in Pinedale we lost almost half a deer herd to development, but there was almost nothing done,” he says. “In fact, in Pinedale, they’re looking to do year round drilling now.”

Colorado state wildlife officials expect to finish the Piceance study between 2013 and 2018. So far, it has received about $1.5 million in funding from energy companies, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and the National Mule Deer Foundation. But the Division of Wildlife will likely provide most of the money in the long run, says Hampton. In addition to money, oil and gas companies have given access to their private land where much of the Piceance drilling occurs.

Shell Exploration and Production Company, which donated $325,000 to the project, is researching oil shale development in the Piceance Basin and plans to start commercial development within the next decade. “The whole point of doing this is to find out where the sensitivities are so we can work around them when the time comes to develop,” says Shell communications and sustainability manager Tracy Boyd. “It’s a lot better to do all this stuff up front than to do it at the end of the planning process.”

However, thousands of wells from other companies already dot the basin, and some worry that the research is already too late. “From a management standpoint, you don’t wait until something’s completely lost before you adjust the development procedures,” says Belinda. “That’s like waiting for someone to die before you diagnose them with cancer. You can’t turn back the clock on all that development for the deer. We found that out in Pinedale.”

 

The author is an intern for High Country News.