About 15 years ago, gas development started growing in a section of southwest Wyoming called the Pinedale Anticline.
It was high altitude sage-brush country: dry and windy in the summers windy, harsh and cold in the winters. The conditions made for prime mule deer habitat.
The region had another valuable resource in what would turn out to be one of the largest gas reserves in the country. The wells drilled along the western base of the Wind River Mountains ultimately earned the state hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue while creating a bevy of new jobs.
The Jonah and Pinedale fields remain two of the most productive in the country today, even as natural gas plays in the eastern U.S. and Texas expand.
But where the state profited, mule deer struggled.
In 12 years, the numbers of deer wintering on the Anticline dropped 42 percent, according to Hall Sawyer, a researcher for Western EcoSystems Technology Inc., who started studying the deer herds in 1998 with the University of Wyoming.
The deer migrate from their winter range through four different mountain ranges, distributing throughout the western half of the state, he said.
Industry, land management and wildlife officials all point to varying reasons for the decline, from harsh winters to highway deaths to energy development. Many agree it’s a combination of multiple factors.
Consistent research has helped remove some of the unknowns, said Sawyer. And it’s research paid for largely by companies involved in the work.
“When we started that work 15 years ago it was questionable if deer avoided well pads,” Sawyer said. “No one really knew. We’ve clearly shown they do… Now the question is to what degree does that effect the number of deer?”
Studying impacts of energy development on wildlife isn’t necessarily a new thing. Research on how deer and pronghorn respond to coal mine reclamation dates to the 1980s. But application of the research has been more recent, said Scott Gamo, a staff terrestrial biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He credits the increase in awareness with a potential listing of sage grouse on the endangered species list, something that could dramatically change industry across the state.
In recent years, some companies have agreed to, and implemented, changes to help mule deer in the Pinedale Anticline area. One is using a liquid gathering system to pipe liquid byproducts away instead of using tankers, which decreases disturbances in the area. Directional drilling has reduced activity on the surface, Sawyer said.
While the Pinedale region is Wyoming’s most striking example of energy development intersecting with wildlife, it’s not the only one.
Below are a handful of other sources of controversy in Wyoming’s recent history where wildlife and energy have collided.
- Douglas core area: In 2013, Wyoming allowed Chesapeake Energy to drill oil wells in an area designated as special management. It was one of the biggest issues to face Wyoming’s Greater Sage-Grouse Core Area Protection executive order. Chesapeake had existing rights in the area, and agreed to commit $2.8 million to habitat projects in the area at some point. Conservationists feared the deal would erode what little had been gained to help keep sage grouse off of the endangered species list. Read more about this issue and the state of Wyoming’s core sage grouse area here.
- Wind farms and eagles: Even energy billed as clean can have impacts on wildlife. The U.S. Department of Justice fined Duke Energy $1 million for killing 14 golden eagles and about 150 other protected species between 2009 and 2013. The deaths all occurred on Duke Energy’s Converse County wind farms, and was the first time the Obama administration legally addressed a wind company for bird fatalities. Read more about the wind farm and eagles here.
- Battle Mountain: The State Loan and Investment Board leased 3,900 acres of pristine wildlife habitat in the Little Snake River Valley near Baggs recently to GRMR Oil and Gas. Plans call for seasonal drilling restrictions and buffer zones, but area landowners and wildlife officials question the ultimate impacts if development begins.
- Little Mountain: In a similar situation west of Battle Mountain, fish and wildlife advocates questioned the Bureau of Land Management’s leasing of an area called Little Mountain to Azalea Oil Company LLC for one exploratory well. The area is one of the most popular elk hunting areas in the state, and one local biologist called it the “Yellowstone National Park of Sweetwater County.” Most conservationists didn’t protest the plan, but said they wanted to make sure development was carefully monitored.
- Fortification Creek: A University of Wyoming professor and student recently finished tracking 59 cow elk in a portion of Campbell, Johnson and Sheridan counties with 700 coal bed methane wells. The study showed elk quit using areas with development, which meant the elk lost about 50 percent of their high-use habitat during three years. Anadarko Petroleum, the developer, says it is restricting traffic and changing timing to reduce disturbance. Read more about the study and potential consequences here.