Selling a birthright

It’s the kind of industrial efficiency America admires. In 1997, Ultra Petroleum sank a gas well on the Mesa, a long, flat-topped ridge along the Green River in western Wyoming. Over the previous sixty years, other outfits had drilled in the gas-rich strata of the Pinedale Anticline under the Mesa, but the rocks turned out to be what geologists call a “tight formation” with few cracks and fissures that would allow gas some distance from the well shaft to move toward it as the gas closer to the shaft was removed.

Ultra was the first operator to loosen the anticline strata with a technique called “fracking,” in which a mixture of fluids and sediment were pumped into the well at high pressure where it opened cracks along seams in the rock, allowing the gas to move more easily so that it could be economically collected. Ultra’s first well was such a success that the company immediately drilled three more, and corporations like Shell, Questar, and BP scrambled to get a piece of the action.

The Mesa is more than a ridge with natural gas underneath. It’s also critical winter range for mule deer that summer on the west flank of the Wind River Range. As the demand for drilling permits accelerated, reaction among local wildlife biologists, hunters, and other conservationists deepened from concern to alarm. Industry representatives were sure the mule deer would learn to coexist with the intensifying activity on the gas field; the BLM needed hard evidence of impacts on the deer, and all the local biologists had was the puckered feeling that came through the seats of their jeans. While that feeling was based on decades of experience and observation, it wasn’t quantified, so in 2000, the BLM authorized 700 more wells and directed the drilling companies to pay for a long-term study of the local mule deer.

Enter Hall Sawyer and his colleagues at Western Ecosystems Technologies, Inc. (WEST). In 2000, WEST landed the contract for an extensive study of deer and their habitat on the Mesa and nearby winter ranges that weren’t being drilled— Sawyer won the dubious distinction of leading the investigation, which combines extensive vegetation sampling with radio telemetry and aerial surveys to estimate deer populations and track changes in population and patterns of use, along with satellite imaging to measure the amount of habitat that has been lost to drill pads, storage tanks, and roads that have been installed since 2000.

Last September, Sawyer and his team released their tenth annual report on the deer of the Mesa, and the hard data confirm the seat-of-the-pants assessments wildlife managers had made when the gas rush first began. About three percent of the deer habitat on the Mesa has been lost to well pads and access roads with an additional unmeasured loss to pipeline rights of way. And, even though companies have made good-faith efforts to reduce traffic on roads and minimize the dirt work on drilling pads, the deer continue to avoid the disturbance around the gas field. The nine-year weighted regression analysis of the winter deer population on the Mesa between 2001 and 2009 shows a decline of thirty-six percent. In that same span, the entire deer herd in the area, including the animals that use the Mesa, has declined by twenty-one percent, while the part of the herd wintering on nearby undisturbed range has actually increased.

Sawyer’s analysis shows that annual survival of does on the Mesa in 2009 was ten percent lower than average survival over the last ten years. Most of the mortality occurred in May. “These deer came off the winter range, made it through most of their migration, and just sort of tipped over,” Sawyer said. “We have never seen anything like this before, but it certainly raises a red flag.”

The BLM’s plan for the Mesa requires the agency to increase its mitigation efforts if the Mesa’s deer population drops more than fifteen percent in any year or cumulatively over years since 2005. (A note here: It’s interesting that BLM should use the year 2005 as a baseline, since the population estimates for that year had already dropped sixty percent from estimates made in 2001, the year Sawyer started winter survey flights.) Between 2008 and 2009, the estimates of Mesa mule deer numbers dropped by forty-five percent, which has at least triggered a discussion about the possibility that mitigation efforts should be intensified.

In the case of the Sublette mule deer herd, mitigation has consisted mainly of buying conservation easements on large ranches along the upper Green River drainage. These easements should protect the habitat on these ranches from encroachment by ranchettes, but even though efforts are being made to improve the conserved habitat, it will probably not produce enough deer to offset the losses that seem to be occurring on the Mesa. And it’s worth considering that the influx of well-paid workers as a result of the natural gas play in the area is a significant part of the increase in demand for ranchettes. In this case and in other similar situations, mitigation isn’t likely to give us back the deer we’ve lost; the best we can hope is that it will reduce subsequent losses we would otherwise suffer.

Perhaps the most discouraging part of this story is the way the decision to develop was made. The informed opinions of experienced biologists carried no weight compared to the demands industry made on BLM officials. Oil and gas companies were required to fund wildlife research, but in the end, the burden of proof concerning the impacts of development fell on wildlife managers and conservationists, even though the proposal to transform the Mesa came from industry.

Thirteen years after the first successful well, we have the proof, which comes, as it usually does, too late to affect the sale of leases or the pattern of development in the gas field on the Mesa. The estimated life of the reserve is forty to sixty years, which assumes that neither the market for natural gas nor the technology for extracting it will change much, two assumptions that are questionable at best. But, at some point in the future, the gas will finally run out, and my grandchildren or their children may get the chance to try reclaiming the winter range on the Mesa, at which point they’ll find out how much is really known about the surprisingly delicate ecology of the sagebrush grasslands.

In the meantime, the approaches to development that were applied on the Mesa have already been used on other oil and gas fields in Wyoming. These fields don’t involve much crucial winter range, but they do occupy huge tracts of cover that are important to deer, pronghorns, sage grouse, Columbian sharptails, and the weather-beaten outdoorsmen who pursue them across the high desert.  The basins and foothills of the interior West are a unique landscape, rich in resources that are increasingly rare in modern America— silence, solitude, and the freedom to travel to the far horizon without asking leave of any man. They deserve better from us.

The WEST report can be found at: http://www.wy.blm.gov/jio-papo/papo/index.htm. Click on “2010 Mule Deer Monitoring Annual Report.”

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