Can wildlife weather the gas boom?

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -