Oh deer

 

For the last 10 years, Western Ecosystems Technology, Inc. -- an environmental and statistical consulting group -- has been studying the mule deer that winter on the Pinedale Anticline. Over the first four years of the study,

mule deer populations decreased by about half. Then in 2005, the number of deer wintering on the Anticline started increasing, not to the highs recorded at the start of the study, but enough to make a nice scoop-shaped graph climbing up through 2008. The energy industry eagerly drew attention to this data, saying it "reflects the success of the industry's ongoing mitigation efforts in the field."

But the latest data, just released in a new report [pdf], makes those increases look like a temporary distraction from an overall downward trend. From 2008 to 2009 the Anticline’s mule deer population plunged by 1,700 – a 45 percent drop in just one year, and the lowest population documented in the course of the study.

Here's what we know:

  • In the last 12 months, 754 natural gas wells have been drilled on the Pinedale Anticline.
  • Mule deer avoid natural gas well pads.
  • Mule deer on the Anticline have decreased by 60 percent since the gas boom started.

And here's what we don't know:

  • Whether gas drilling is to blame for the mule deer decline.
  • What to do next.

Mule deer are declining throughout the West, according to Miles Moretti, president of the Mule Deer Foundation. "The biggest pressure on mule deer is loss of winter range," he says. "I don't know why, but it seems that every place there is winter range there is oil and gas."

Still, the authors of the report, caution against attributing the declines on the Anticline exclusively to natural gas development. They suggest that a series of unusually mild winters combined with winter off-road vehicle restrictions in surrounding areas could have caused mule deer to seek other winter range. However, they add that increased drilling activity may have disrupted fawn survival or adult reproduction.

BLM officials, wildlife experts and industry representatives got together to discuss the mule deer data at a public meeting in Pinedale on October 27.  Biologist and report author Hall Sawyer explained it's not just the number of mule deer that's going down, but their survival rate as well. During the study, some deer died in early May due to poor body condition. "Survival is as low as we've ever seen it," Sawyer said. "It certainly raises a red flag."

According to the Bureau of Land Management's development plan [pdf] for the Anticline, a 15 percent decline in mule deer will trigger serious mitigation measures, which could include on-site habitat enhancement, protecting habitat in surrounding areas, through conservation easements, for instance, or modifying operations on the Anticline.

BLM Pinedale Field Manager Shane DeForest says his agency "predicted there would be substantial impacts from development." He feels the report offers validation that adaptive management -- a process where managers monitor wildlife as development goes forward and adjust operations along the way based on how they respond -- is working as it was intended. "It is meant to be a living process," he says, explaining that the next step is to design and implement mitigation measures. The BLM is accepting public input on mitigation through November 3. Comments should focus on specific actions the BLM can take to protect mule deer and can be sent to [email protected]. Next, the BLM will meet with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and industry representatives to come up with a mitigation plan, which they intend to unveil at a public meeting after the Christmas holiday.

But some feel their response is too slow. "We have 60 percent fewer deer than when development started. I define that as severe," says Steve Belinda, Energy Initiative Manager for the sportsmen advocacy group Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and a former BLM biologist. "There needs to be more urgency in BLM's actions. We are not seeing that. That's where I'm discouraged."

Others believe the 2009 data simply shows natural variation. "Continuing monitoring is needed,” industry representative Tim Murray said at the recent Pinedale meeting, according to the Casper Star Tribune. “Let's see what the results are before we start reacting too much.'"

Emilene Ostlind is a High Country News editorial intern.

Mule deer photo used with permission from Mark Gocke. Data in chart from "Mule Deer Monitoring in the Pinedale Anticline Project Area: 2010 Annual Report," by Hall Sawyer and Ryan Nielson of Western Ecosystems Technology, Inc.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATURAL HISTORY INSTITUTE
    The Executive Director is the chief executive officer of the Natural History Institute (NHI). The Executive Director has broad authority to lead and manage the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • SENIOR DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATE
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Senior Development Associate to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a...
  • TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL CREWLEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California ,is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National Scenic...
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES POLICY ADVOCATE
    Are you a Guardian for wildlife, great and small, across the West? WildEarth Guardians (Guardians) seeks a full-time Endangered Species Policy Advocate (Advocate) for the...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • 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...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...