Conservation calculus

Are trade-offs in Wyoming's Jonah natural gas field a boon for wildlife?

  • The Carney Ranch in western Wyoming, where a 2,400-acre easement — funded by wildlife mitigation money from the Jonah Field — will protect a vital portion of a pronghorn antelope migration route.

    BLM
 

When Otis Carney's truck first rounded the bend of Black Butte in 1963, the Bar E Bar Ranch unfolded below him, nestled between western Wyoming's Gros Ventre and Wind River Mountains, with the Green River cutting lazy S-turns through rolling sage. "It was pretty much love at first sight," says his son, John Carney, who now owns the ranch with 40 family members.

Though it's still a cattle outfit, Otis, a novelist, originally bought the property as a getaway from Los Angeles, where he wrote for TV and film. Before his death in 2006, he worried about the ranch's fate, given that nearby ranches were turning into subdivisions. "It was always my father's dream to be able to protect the Upper Green," John says.

That dream was also shared by conservation groups. The 5,500-acre ranch is home to grouse, elk, moose and mule deer and straddles the southern end of a bottleneck in the "Path of the Pronghorn" -- a 6,000-year-old, nearly 200-mile-long migratory route from summer range in Grand Teton National Park to winter range in the Green River Valley.

Until December 2009, this pinch point -- one of three -- was the only one on the route not formally protected from migration-blocking development. That's when the Carney family put 2,400 acres under a conservation easement, using funding from another world-class resource: the Jonah Field, estimated to hold 14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- enough to heat 8.4 million homes for 20 years.

Back in 2006, Encana Corp. and BP America Production Co. paid $21.5 million and $3 million respectively into a fund to make up for the environmental impacts of drilling an unusually dense concentration of wells on 30,000 acres in the field. That money has been used outside the field to help put nearly 35,000 private acres under conservation easement. It's also paid for grazing improvement plans on 78,500 acres of private and public lands, plant surveys to monitor rangeland health, and wildlife projects like enhancing sage grouse habitat and altering fences to ease the passage of migrating animals. Those involved laud it as a model for extractive industries.

The original goal was to make improvements on 90,000 acres outside the field. But "we feel that we have directly impacted 600,000 acres, so in my book that's very successful," says Jim Lucas, who until May was the Bureau of Land Management coordinator of the Jonah Interagency Office in Pinedale. That's where the BLM, Wyoming Game and Fish, Wyoming Department of Agriculture and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality dole out the mitigation money for both Jonah and the nearby Pinedale Anticline gas field, which established its own $36 million fund in 2008.

But with unclear protocols for monitoring the Jonah program's effects on wildlife and a comprehensive baseline assessment of the quality of habitat in the Jonah Field three years overdue, it's difficult to gauge the fund's success beyond raw acreages. Without that information, and with only $2.4 million in uncommitted funds remaining, some conservationists wonder whether the amount of money set aside was ever enough.

When Encana, BP and other operators first proposed drilling 3,100 new wells in the Jonah Field in 2002 -- allowing one well-pad every 10 acres rather than every 80 acres to tap the gas trapped in sandstone pockets below -- development was already under way. Five hundred wells had been approved and roads, pipelines and drill rigs crisscrossed the sage, increasing pressure to approve infill. The BLM decided it would be impossible to alleviate the environmental damage within the field itself. So, with support from Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D, Encana proposed to pay for habitat improvements and other projects in places around Pinedale where there wasn't drilling. In addition, BLM capped how much land in the field could be disturbed at once, requiring companies to replant and demonstrate regrowth before carving up new areas. "We thought," says Encana spokesman Randy Teeuwen, "that it was a responsible thing to do."

At the time, some conservationists warned that the model could enable industries to buy their way out of regulations. Critics also stressed that it shouldn't replace best management practices for drilling. But everyone saw that wildlife habitat was already compromised in the gas fields: Full development in Jonah and the Pinedale Anticline has displaced or led to declines in sage grouse, mule deer, ground-nesting songbirds and other species, studies show. A well-stocked fund could help preserve key habitat by preventing development in other threatened areas, especially pronghorn and mule deer migration corridors. And off-site protected areas could serve as refuges for wildlife that might return to a future, reclaimed Jonah Field.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.