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Joint Project Seeks to Stem Impact of Energy Production on Wyoming Wildlife

With an energy boom in the Rocky Mountain West still going strong, 3,000 more infill wells are planned there over the next 75 years.

The changes resulting from the gas fields did not go unnoticed. Local residents and conservationists decried the project’s environmental effects, leading BP America and EnCana Oil and Gas, which operate the Jonah fields, to agree in 2006 to set up a $24.5 million fund to mitigate some of the environmental damage.

Now, a group of conservation scientists are working with BP to develop methods of scientific mapping to get the most out of that money, by figuring out which nearby areas to conserve. They aim to preserve the area’s unique ecosystem, and also develop methods that may be applicable to other conservation projects around the country.

The Upper Green River Basin area of Wyoming is considered one of the most significant sources of natural gas in the United States, and drilling took off there after a 2001 White House energy task force called for expanded oil and gas exploration on federal lands.

The basin is also home to a major pronghorn migration corridor, sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, and burrowing owls, and is used by local ranchers for grazing cattle. According to the Wyoming Outdoor Council, it is also the largest publicly-owned winter range for big game. Hundreds of thousands of moose, elk, and mule deer retreat to the valley during the snowy months.

BP and EnCana planned to use their mitigation fund to preserve habitat outside the Jonah Fields to offset the immediate damage to the fields. In 2006, BP approached The Nature Conservancy of Wyoming.

“We wanted to put some science into identifying the best site for offsite mitigation,” says David Brown, BP regulatory affairs manager.

They began working with Joe Kiesecker, a conservation biologist and director of science for the Nature Conservancy Wyoming. Kiesecker and his colleagues gathered data on the ecosystem on the Wyoming Basin and oil and natural gas in the area. Their maps showed key wildlife habitats, and highlighted areas where oil, gas, wildlife, and vegetation resources overlapped. They determined how many species would be affected by drilling and how much area needed to be preserved to replace the damage. Their research was published in the January 2009 issue of Bioscience.

After examining their data, the researchers located an ideal conservation area about 20 miles away from BP’s Jonah field developments. The 1,042 acre Cottonwood Ranch was rich in animal and plant life, but poor in natural gas.

BP and the researchers then began to work with the Jonah Interagency Mitigation and Reclamation Office — an interagency government office created to administer the mitigation fund — and local land owners to preserve the area.

The mitigation fund paid for an easement that will limit future development on the ranch. The JIO also develops conservation plans for places like Cottonwood Ranch to enhance wildlife and sagebrush communities, including projects such as water development, distribution of livestock, and seeding to be sure no damage is done to the area.

But while state and federal land agencies are on board with this method of conservation, not all local Wyoming biologists and conservationists are convinced that the mitigation efforts do enough to protect the ecosystem.

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, says that while protecting land like Cottonwood Ranch is important, it does not effectively compensate for the unique sage grass habitat that has been lost.

Linda Baker, a grassroots organizer for the Upper Green River Valley Coalition, also remains unconvinced. She uses the mule deer as an example of the project’s weaknesses. The Upper Green River Valley has the second largest mule deer population in the country, and Baker says that there are no wildlife studies to prove that the deer previously occupying the Jonah Field have moved to the Cottonwood Ranch.

“[The Cottonwood Ranch] is huge. The mule deer have been there for ages, and their population is not changing. It’s great for those individual deer,” she says, “but as for proof of enhancing the population — the jury is still out.”

Still, many conservation biologists believe the research is valuable. There are 20 sites in Wyoming that, like Cottonwood Ranch, were identified in Kiesecker’s study where the JIO is now working on conservation plans. The Nature Conservancy has had interest from Questar, a natural gas company based in Utah, and even from other countries on using the same methods for energy development and conservation.

“I think from a national standpoint we’re one of the few interagency offices to undertake this kind of conservation,” says Dan Stroud, a biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish department who works with the JIO. “I hope we continue to enhance the wildlife that we’re accustomed to here in Wyoming.”