Drilling where antelope play

Even as natural-gas wellheads proliferate, new strategies aim to lessen environmental impact

On a windswept butte in the upper Green River valley, biologist Steve Belinda watches a herd of pronghorn antelope as a line of red Halliburton trucks rumble down a dusty road below.

In front of him is an intersection of sprouting gas derricks, nomadic wildlife, and, on the horizon, the serrated caps of the Wind River mountain range. The convergence of the three is creating a clash here in western Wyoming as part of one of the largest energy booms in United States history.

How the US Bureau of Land Management succeeds - or fails - to balance energy demands with protecting what many call "North America's winter Serengeti" could impact drilling disputes from Alaska to Florida as environmentalists clash with the Bush administration over

opening up more public land to development.

"We've got a world-class gas play occurring in the same landscape that is home to world-class populations of wildlife," says Mr. Belinda, the lead wildlife scientist with the Pinedale office of the BLM. "I think we can have both without sacrificing one for the other."

Here in Wyoming, the expanding footprint of energy development in Sublette County, with two major gas fields, a major oil field, and a large coalbed, has far-reaching implications on the southern end of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

More than 100,000 deer, antelope, and elk depart the deep snows of the mountains every autumn to spend their winters here - a winter concentration larger than in Yellowstone National Park. Moreover, the area encompassing the anticline and nearby Jonah Gas Field also offers habitat for sage grouse (recently a candidate for federal protection), nomadic grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, moose, eagles, hawks, and several different other kinds of migratory birds.

"We are at a tipping point in the Upper Green as the drilling boom already is harming wildlife," said Peter Aengst, an activist with the Wilderness Society, which recently released a report with other groups claiming wildlife and air quality are being significantly impaired.

Last year, preliminary research conducted by independent biologist Hall Sawyer, as part of a long-term study funded by Questar Exploration, indicated that gas wells, the network of roads, and traffic were displacing one of the largest populations of mule deer from critical habitat.

"Whether it's elk, antelope, mule deer, or sage grouse, evidence shows that constraints on road use and new energy developments are needed to ensure healthy wildlife populations over the long term," says Mr. Aengst.

Many believe that if the energy production around Pinedale is mishandled and environmental destruction occurs, it could jeopardize efforts to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling in the wake of a recent Senate vote enabling development to proceed there in 10 years.

New Mexico, with its own controversial gas drilling slated to expand on the state's wildlife-rich Otero Mesa, is also carefully watching what happens in Wyoming's gas fields.

"Everything we do here is being placed under a microscope," Belinda says of industry proposals to triple the number of gas wells in Sublette County to nearly 10,000.

"We recognize that Pinedale is the center of the world for the BLM and its approach to gas development," Belinda adds. "Energy fields on public lands are one of the most challenging things for a biologist to mitigate. The [political tensions] are high."

Preserving big game

Complicating the politics in the Bush administration are calls to slow down the pace of development coming not only from main-line environmental groups but also from conservative hunters and anglers.

One prominent sportsman is Rollie Sparrowe, the former president of the Wildlife Management Institute, who retired to the Pinedale area with his wife and now works for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Mr. Sparrowe has voiced his concerns directly to senior Bush administration officials who oversee federal land management agencies. He also heard President Bush promise that energy development would be balanced with environmental protection.

Yet, some longtime supporters of the president say that pledge is being unfulfilled.

Sparrowe first discovered this corner of Wyoming 40 years ago when he worked as a naturalist in Yellowstone National Park. For a quarter century, he came to the wildlands outside Pinedale every fall on big game hunting trips. Today some of the very herds of mule deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope that left him smitten with Sublette County are in trouble.

Drawing parallels between the wildlife issues on the Pinedale Anticline and ANWR is more than superficial. One of the antelope herds that shows up at the anticline follows an ancient pathway, at least 7,000 years old, that extends from Grand Teton National Park. It is the second-longest wildlife migrate route in the Western Hemisphere, says Joel Berger, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Only the migration of caribou in the Porcupine herd that inhabits the arctic refuge covers a longer distance, he adds.

Studying impacts

Today, under Berger's tutelage, researcher Renée Wulff is tracking the movements of 50 radio-collared antelope - as part of a study underwritten by industry - that seeks to learn how the presence of energy development affects the animals' behavior.

Pronghorns, Ms. Wulff says, unlike other animals, don't fatten up much over the winter. Added stress caused by intrusions of development in their habitat, severing their corridors, could push them over the edge, she says.

Environmentalists have accused the BLM of turning the Jonah Field into a "sacrifice zone" for wildlife, but Belinda says efforts have been made to minimize the impacts.

New strategies

Some companies are not only supporting research, but they are trying to minimize effects by using high-tech "directional drilling," which enables them to operate as many as 32 wells from a single point above ground.

While industry has made strides in lessening environmental disturbances, industry representatives are quick to point out that achieving no impact is near impossible.

"[Directional drilling] is a great technology but it's been wrongly labeled as a cure-all for environmental concerns," says Jeff Johnson, team leader of production in the massive Jonah Field for EnCana USA.

"Adaptive management" is a relatively new management strategy based upon the principle that regulatory agencies and industry will adjust development plans if activities are shown to have adverse impacts.

"What's on trial is whether adaptive management represents just words or whether it, as a philosophy, is able to work on the ground. The jury is still out," Sparrowe says.

The BLM faces a crucial test in the months ahead as the agency decides whether it will allow more intensified development.

"It isn't just that energy companies came along and turned into bad guys," Sparrowe says, noting that the same kinds of geological forces that trapped huge deposits of gas also created a breathtaking landscape above ground - a landscape that is attracting retirees who are building second homes and making Sublette County one of the fastest growing rural areas in Wyoming.

Inevitable sprawl

Sprawl is also an enemy of wildlife. Within a few decades, planners project that 1,000 new homes could be dotting former cattle ranches. According to the American Farmland Trust, 336,000 acres of private ranches in Sublette County could be converted to residential subdivisions by 2020.

Already, private land development has severely affected pronghorn on the edge of Pinedale in a corridor known as "Antelope Alley." A brand-new motel, for example, is being built right in the middle of the pronghorn travel route.

While some residents feel the wildlife should learn to adjust to the new drilling sites, Berger has proposed creating an unprecedented national wildlife corridor called the "Path of the Pronghorn" across private and public land that would preserve a 90 miles long and one mile wide buffer, to enable antelope and other animals to migrate safely.

According to some, the idea has captured attention from the Bush administration, which still hopes the president could earn the same favorable comparisons to Republican conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt that were bestowed upon Bill Clinton.

Prior to arriving in Wyoming a year a ago, Belinda worked for the BLM in the Permian Basin of southern New Mexico where oil and gas production has occurred for 80 years. The natural landscape today is so altered that biologists often lament that they wished development could have been planned differently.

BLM biologist Belinda hopes to take lessons learned there and apply them to this boom. "We want to do what's right, but unfortunately we probably won't know if we succeeded for another 40, 50, or 60 years," he says. "All we can do is take the cards that have been dealt to us and try to play the best hand for the wildlife we are here to protect for the American people."

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