Mule deer are red flags on gas drilling in Wyoming's Upper Green-

By © Todd Wilkinson

In the year 2000, when the federal Bureau of Land Management completed an Environmental Impact Statement on proposed gas drilling in the Pinedale Anticline, huge gaps in knowledge were identified as cause for concern. Scientists weren’t completely certain how full-field gas development in the anticline, the nearby Jonah Field, and the 1.2-million-acre Pinedale Resource Area as a whole, would affect wildlife, air quality, water, and scenery.

That’s why, when the EIS was released (at the tail end of the Clinton Administration) and giving private companies permission to drill, that a strategy of “adaptive management” was touted. In simple terms, the BLM pledged that if any warning signs regarding environmental impacts arose as development increased in volume and scope, the agency would make adjustments. Now we’ll see if our civil servants are good on their word.

This week in Dubois, a respected independent wildlife biologist will deliver preliminary findings of a multi-year study to the Wyoming chapter of the Wildlife Society (an organization of scientists) with many natural resource professionals in attendance.

Hall Sawyer, who is employed by Western Ecosystems Technology Inc., has been examining the impacts of drilling on one of the United State’s most significant mule deer herds, which makes its home in the Upper Green River Basin. Mr. Hall has been studying the effects as part of monitoring being underwritten by Questar Exploration and Production Company (a gas drilling outfit) and the BLM. Hall has excellent research credentials and he is one of those field guys who bases his conclusions on empirical evidence.

What his research indicates should cause the public, mule deer hunters, state wildlife officials, and the BLM (which critics believe has been in denial over the consequences of drilling) to take notice. (Read it online at: www.west-inc.com/reports/papa_2004_report.pdf)
 
The Sublette County mule deer herd is not only Wyoming’s largest, but it is one of the largest in the country. Like the pronghorn herd with which it shares the range, it is also one of the last ungulate herds in the Lower 48 that adheres to an ancient migration route, based upon instincts that have evolved over millennia.

Sawyer’s data suggests that the expanding infrastructure of gas wells is displacing mule deer from preferred habitat in the Pinedale Anticline, a sweep of public land that provides critical winter range for deer and many other species. No one knows, for sure, how the herd will be affected long term, but studies involving other species at other locations indicate that whenever a wildlife population is extirpated from prime habitat, the population often drops in number because its carrying capacity decreases.

As the BLM moves aggressively to permit more wells in the Pinedale Resource Area, including possibly adding hundreds or thousands of more wells over the coming decades, such activity is not likely to bode well for mulies, or pronghorn, or sage grouse, or elk (or, for that matter, the quality of air that humans breathe).

Time and again, federal bureaucrats with professional and social connections to the oil and gas industry have said that the “precautionary principle”—the scientific tenet that advises agencies to “look before they leap”—has been hijacked by conservationists.

They have claimed that activists often embellish perceived environmental threats. Yet here is a study not authorized by enviros but carried out with the backing of industry and government that confirms the fears of citizens and sportsmen about drilling.
“This study is a giant red flag screaming ‘Whoa! Let’s slow down,’” says Peter Aengst of the Wilderness Society who has also scrutinized full-field gas development in Canada near Waterton Lakes National Park. “A key implication of this study is that the BLM is recklessly making major decisions about drilling in big game winter range without really understanding the impacts.”
We know the value of natural gas on the open market, but what is the worth of a natural process like wildlife migration perfected over eons, or the loss of a hunting opportunity for families, or the role of mule deer in keeping an ecosystem (and its predators) healthy and inspiring?

These are not things the BLM has even begun to consider, but it’s time that the agency start. Hall Sawyer’s research is giving the public an opportunity to begin the discussion.