Where the Antelope (and the Oil Companies) Play

In Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin, gas drillers lock horns with the locals

  • Pronghorn antelope

    FRANZ CAMENZIND
  • An antelope by a drill rig on the Pinedale Anticline

    LINDA BAKER
  • Antelope at Trappers Point, one "bottleneck" on their migration route

    FRANZ CAMENZIND
  • Pronghorn antelope migration route

    Diane Sylvain
  • I've seen antelope coming through here for 50 years. I'd like to see them for another 50 years," says Gordon Johnston, Sublette County Commission

    COURTESY PINEDALE ROUNDUP
  • Landsat satellite images of a seven-square-mile area of the Jonah gas field, 1986

    Images by SkyTruth for Upper Green River Valley Coalition
  • Landsat satellite images of a seven-square-mile area of the Jonah gas field, 1999

    Images by SkyTruth for Upper Green River Valley Coalition
  • Landsat satellite images of a seven-square-mile area of the Jonah gas field, 2001

    Images by SkyTruth for Upper Green River Valley Coalition
  • "Twenty years ago, when I moved here, you could look out to the Wind River Range and not see a light. I used to think I was at the very fringe of civilization," says Linda Baker, Upper Green River Valley Coalition

    JOHN DAHLKE
 

PINEDALE, Wyo. — When the snow cover peels off the Upper Green River Basin, a biannual dance springs to life outside this century-old ranching community. Thousands of pronghorn antelope head north, the females deep into pregnancy, to birthing grounds and summer range at higher elevations.

Last April, in the sagebrush between Jackson and Pinedale, I encountered numerous bands of these tan and white creatures on the way to their summer haunts in the mountains. They grazed peacefully, until they noticed me watching. Then they were off and running at highway speeds.

One of nature’s greatest athletes, Antilocapra americana is the continent’s swiftest animal. Having co-evolved with a long-extinct cheetah-like cat, the pronghorn is capable of sustained speeds of 50 mph.

While every other surviving species of North American ungulate is linked to forebears that crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, the pronghorn is a true native, the sole surviving member of a family that dates back 20 million years.

Prior to white settlement, pronghorn rivaled the great herds of bison that also roamed the Plains; ecologists estimate there were 30 to 60 million of the animals. Wholesale slaughter drove them to near extinction at the turn of the 20th century; then conservation, led by sport hunters, allowed their numbers to rebound to about 1 million in North America.

Today, about half the entire pronghorn population lives in Wyoming, making the animals more plentiful than people in the so-called Cowboy State. But the pronghorn remain vulnerable, because they need open land. They tend to avoid forests and thick brush, and are unwilling to jump fences, though they can duck under barbwire with an effortless downshift.

One band of several hundred pronghorns here has become a cause célèbre among conservationists, because it makes the longest overland migration of any animal in the Lower 48 states. The twice-a-year trek takes the band between winter range south of Pinedale and summer pasture in Grand Teton National Park. The migration, which crosses a 9,000-foot pass in the Gros Ventre Mountains, stretches 160 miles one-way.

But the future doesn’t look bright for this band, or for any of the other 46,000 pronghorn that spend part or all of the year in the Upper Green. The basin — which is also home to 60,000 deer, elk, moose and bighorn sheep, and one of the largest remaining populations of sage grouse — happens to sit on top of one of the nation’s richest natural gas deposits. Under energy-policy directives coming out of the White House, and with headlines screaming about a gas shortage, the southwest corner of Wyoming — already a full-fledged resource colony — is getting even busier, swarming with seismic-exploration thumper trucks, drilling rigs and Texans.

The federal Bureau of Land Management, which is the primary landlord here, has already leased about a million acres for possible drilling — 86 percent of the Pinedale Resource Area, plus the rights under some private and state land. The players include multinationals such as ExxonMobil, Enron Oil and Gas, EnCana USA, BP America, and billionaire investor Warren Buffet, who owns a giant pipeline that connects to power plants and other energy-hungry customers in Southern California.

The gas boom promises to test industry’s professed commitment to tread lightly on the land. It’s also shaping up to be an epic struggle between two core Western values: conservation of wildlife and resource extraction.

 

An arid, high-elevation sagebrush plain with only a few thousand human residents, the Upper Green River Basin is hemmed by spectacular mountains including the Wind River, Gros Ventre and Wyoming ranges. To get back and forth from the mountains, the pronghorns that winter in the basin — and their distant cousins, mule deer — follow ancient migration corridors that narrow in places biologists call “bottlenecks.”

The most famous bottleneck is a few miles west of Pinedale, where the terrain undulates to a high point between the Green and New Fork rivers. Several thousand pronghorn and deer pass through Trappers Point, among them the far-ranging Teton Park band. The topography funnels them through a mile-wide slot between the rivers — a bottleneck that’s been effectively narrowed to just a half-mile wide by a scatter of houses, dirt roads and U.S. Highway 191.

I visited Trappers Point in April at the tail end of the migration with Meredith Taylor, a veteran Wyoming Outdoor Council conservationist and Dubois, Wyo., outfitter. “This is the neck of the hourglass. You see those pronghorn over there?” she said, gesturing toward a group across the highway. “That’s where it’s starting to widen out.”

The place has been a busy wildlife crossing for thousands of years. When Highway 191 was widened in the early 1990s, crews uncovered a 6,000-year-old kill site. From the bones and spear points, archaeologists determined that ancient hunters took advantage of this bottleneck to lie in wait for migrating antelope. Fetal bones indicate the pronghorn were killed at a late stage of pregnancy, offering proof they were passing through at about the same time of the spring as they do today, says Dave Vlcek, a BLM archaeologist.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: