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Pronghorn Migration

Pronghorn migrate toward the Tetons in western Wyoming. A 3,500-well natural gas project near Pinedale would cut off a pronghorn migration route, according to environmental groups. 

An energy firm planning a substantial gas development in western Wyoming is pushing back on criticism that pits the project against Wyoming’s most visible ungulate: the pronghorn.

The Normally Pressured Lance gas project is near approval from federal regulators. It would lie just south of the state’s most well-known and prolific gas plays, the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah fields.

With $2.2 billion in potential revenue and up to 3,500 wells, Jonah Energy’s project in the Green River Basin would be among the most ambitious energy developments progressing in Wyoming today, but its location has triggered environmental concerns since its initial proposal by Encana Corp in 2011.

Jonah’s government affairs director, Paul Ulrich, shared a white paper with the Star-Tribune highlighting the company’s near-decade of collaboration with conservation groups to depress impacts on wildlife from the NPL and disputing the common claim from some environmentalists that the project cuts off an important pronghorn migration route.

“Jonah Energy and its employees understand the sensitive balance between energy development and the environment,” Ulrich wrote in the white paper. “It’s our home too.”

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The Path of the Pronghorn charts the 125-mile trek of hundreds of antelope from the cool mountains of Bridger-Teton National Forest in the summer to the sagebrush landscape of the Green River Valley during the winter. But the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has not designated that route as a  migration corridor and the partially federally-protected Path of the Pronghorn does not continue south into the proposed project area. Instead, the corridor ends near Pinedale. 

Therein lays the dispute, in which the energy firm notes its extensive work to develop responsibly, while some environmentalists say Jonah and state officials are ignoring risks to pronghorn in the undesignated migration corridor.

Erik Molvar, of the Western Watersheds Project, says politics, not science, has precluded the area south of the Jonah and Pinedale fields from being designated as a migration route for the antelope herd.

“That has nothing to do with the biological reality of where the pronghorn are migrating,” he said. “If the NPL project creates a situation where we have wall-to-wall energy development across the valley, it creates a barrier.”

Western Watershed released a statement after the Bureau of Land Management published the final environmental impact study on NPL in late June, calling the approaching gas field a “major threat.”

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The Pinedale and Jonah fields, just north of the NPL, were heavily developed during the gas boom and that rapid increase in industry had a number of trade-offs in the Upper Green River Basin. Air quality became a serious issue that inspired new regulations from Wyoming’s Air Quality Division.

Some mule deer populations fell as much as 40 percent in winter areas as the skittish deer avoided oil and gas wells. Those established fields also lie across the designated migration corridor for the pronghorn, fragmenting habitat and reducing the ability of pronghorn and other game to obtain proper nutrients during their annual treks from the mountains to the plains.

The NPL project would increase that fragmentation, Molvar said, noting the five-year study by Renee Seidler and others. The study, published in Conservation Biology in 2014, found that collared pronghorn utilized the habitat area that would be NPL and hurried through the developed areas of the Jonah and Pinedale fields.

Molvar believes more wells will continue to weaken this herd.

“That’s a huge risk, that clearly Jonah Energy is willing to take,” he said.

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Though the migration corridor is a contested topic, a number of conservation organizations report a positive experience with Jonah.

“In a perfect world it should be designated,” said Mary Flanderka of the Wyoming Outdoor Council of the migration corridor. “But even without a designation, they are doing what the state agency recommends (for sensitive habitats).”

Jonah’s development won’t exceed four well pads per square mile across the entire project area. Anything greater than that is likely to degrade crucial habitat, according to the Game and Fish Department recommendations.

Jonah’s well pads can be extensive, up to 18 acres. But that footprint reduces the number of wells spread across the landscape. In the short term, disturbance on the surface could hit 4.5 percent in drilling areas, but in the long run the wells will have a 1 percent legacy, according to Jonah.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council is one of a handful of conservation groups that Jonah consulted as it developed the NPL plans. Others include the Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy.

The company voluntarily suspended development of the NPL to obtain direction from state sage grouse experts on the only winter habitat known to be used by the bird in Wyoming. Jonah is a member of the state’s sage grouse management team.

The company has been a willing partner on wildlife issues, with a history of impressive reclamation in the Jonah field, said Flanderka, who formerly worked for Game and Fish.

“The reality is that we would love that leases weren’t sold or developed in sensitive wildlife habitat, but that isn’t the reality,” she said. “I think they have tried to work with those interests and find a way to accommodate those interests.”

Because of Jonah’s history of partnering locally and working with conservation groups, Flanderka said. They’ve done more than was asked of them in the past and will probably continue to do so, she said.

That doesn’t mean the migration corridor isn’t of concern to multiple groups — even those supportive of Jonah’s reputation of conservation.

“It hasn’t been designated and that is unfortunate, very unfortunate,” said Flanderka from the Outdoor Council. 

Ulrich, of Jonah Energy, detailed some of the company’s work in his white paper, including recommendations taken from local businesses, politicians and conservationists that were inserted into the plan.

But on the migration of antelope, the company is firm.

“We agree that it is a remarkable migratory path,” Ulrich wrote in the white paper. “However, no scientific evidence exists to show that this migration will be impacted by the NPL project.”

That may change.

Angela Bruce, habitat protections supervisor for Game and Fish, said the department has recently received data from collared antelope from the National Park Service. The department is working on incorporating that record of antelope movement into its own records.

The question of whether a migration corridor for the antelope should extend south into NPL will likely be answered in the near future if the state determines the route should be designated, she said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to distinguish the Path of the Pronghorn, which is protected in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and some private land, from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's work to guage if the antelope route meets state standards for designating migration corridors. 

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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