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Mule-deer mitigation debated

Posted: Monday, Nov 1st, 2010

The Mesa, a windswept sagebrush-covered plateau south of Pinedale, is the winter range for one of the world’s biggest mule deer herds.

The Mesa also sits on the north end of one of the world’s most lucrative natural gas fields – the 198,000-acre Pinedale


The area is almost entirely managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Recently, a study showed a 28-percent decline of mule deer on the Mesa between 2009 and 2010. According to the BLM 2008 Pinedale Anticline Record of Decision (ROD), this decline has triggered mandatory mitigation.

What that decline means and which mitigation to employ, though, was up for debate at the BLM Wildlife Annual Planning Meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 27.

Hall Sawyer of Western Ecosystems Technology (WEST) presented the study’s findings to representatives of the BLM, Wyoming Game and Fish, Anticline natural gas operators and about 70 audience


Sawyer explained the 28-percent drop of Mesa mule deer was supported by population estimates that show a 60-percent decrease in mule deer between 2001

and 2009.

In addition, the study estimates energy production on the Mesa has resulted in 1,857 acres of direct habitat loss to mule deer winter range.

What’s more, Sawyer said the Mesa’s 2009 adult female survival rate was less than 70 percent – 10 percent lower than the seven-year average. He said most of the does were dying in May.

“These deer came off the winter range, made it through most of their migration and just sort of tipped over,” he explained. “We have never seen anything like this before but it certainly raises a flag.”

Matrix triggered

The 2008 ROD contains a wildlife matrix intended to guard against irreversible declines in wildlife numbers by requiring mandatory mitigation.

For mule deer, the matrix is triggered with a 15-percent decline in two years.

It was clear the matrix has been triggered, according to BLM Pinedale Field Office Manager Shane DeForest.

Operator representatives from Shell, Ultra and QEP agreed the study showed the matrix was triggered, but they questioned which mitigation or corrective action they should take.

Tim Murray of Shell said the study didn’t convince him additional mitigation was appropriate.

“As a statistician, you’re naturally dealing with some uncertainty,” he said. “And we’ve seen some pretty uncertain results in this.”

Warning that aggressive mitigation could create an “oscillating pattern” punctuated by overreactions, Murray said the BLM should not act on a low data point before it understands what’s going on. He and other operator representatives emphasized a need for additional


DeForest agreed that the BLM doesn’t want to be overzealous – but he disagreed that more mitigation could result in an oscillating pattern.

“I don’t know if we would necessarily expect that to happen,” he said. “I think it’s important for us to initiate some mitigation on the basis of where we are headed. If anything, it might moderate the decline or show a

small increase.”

G&F Supervising Biologist Scott Smith said he didn’t want to argue statistics. He suggested moving forward on mitigation projects, saying, “Whether it’s treatments or disturbance management, we better be proactive.”

Winter drilling

When the matrix is triggered, the ROD specifies a sequential series of mitigations beginning with on-site and off-site projects. Only after those mitigations have had “sufficiently adequate” time to work, the ROD specifies modifying gas development operations.

Yet during Wednesday’s meeting, several audience members requested the BLM revisit its decision to allow winter drilling.

Until 2008, the Mesa was virtually off limits to motorized activity to protect mule deer wintering grounds. Then the 2008 ROD changed that management with the introduction of concentrated, phased, year-round development. By concentrating the gas activity, land managers hoped to leave large sections of habitat intact, thereby reducing the effects of drilling on wintering herds.

Stephanie Kessler of The Wilderness Society said the decline in mule deer indicates the new management style should be reconsidered.

“Right now the jury is out on whether that is working,” she said.

Five other audience members asked the BLM to terminate or limit winter drilling.

However, no G&F, BLM or operator representatives mentioned the topic during their roundtable discussion.

Instead, Mike Helwig of Ultra Resources pointed out the BLM postulates the mule deer decline could result from natural gas development, mild winters, normal population fluctuations, range improvements in nearby wintering grounds or human disturbances other than energy production. He also referred to a list of current mitigations and a liquids gathering system that will reduce truck traffic.

“There are a lot of unknowns out there,” he said.

Later in the meeting, Daniel resident Rollin Sparrowe, a retired biologist, said the Mesa is a framework for energy development in other areas of the west that are home to mule deer herds.

“This is an important, nationally recognized thing that’s going on here,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s too much … sitting around the table and talking about what we should do. The bottom line is the interests represented here at this table set this threshold and now it’s time to ante up and do something.”


Currently, state and federal agencies have undertaken several mitigation projects on the Mesa such as a $46,000 fertilization project intended to promote winter forage for mule deer. Those agencies were also instrumental in developing off-site mitigation such as a $6-million contribution to the Sommers/Grindstone conservation easement. The easement – located west of the Mesa – sets aside 7,600 acres of private land from many types of


All the mitigation is financed through a $36-million fund established by the ROD. It is managed by the Pinedale Anticline Project Office (PAPO), a five-person board of local, state and federal agency representatives. Anticline gas operators contribute $7,500 to the fund for each well they drill.

Yet the fund’s long-term solvency has been questioned.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Pinedale Anticline Working Group Chair Cathy Purves said it might be time to reconsider the amount of the mitigation fund.

“Perhaps there might be other opportunity in the future for further contributions,” she said. “I think that should be reviewed by the agencies and the governor’s office.”

Last week, Gov. Dave Freudenthal said $36 million was a “good faith estimate,” which appears to be falling short. He did not believe the PAPO should ask gas operators for more money.

“I would think given what we gain in tax revenues,” he said, “probably the first effort ought to be for us to use some state funding … through the Wildlife Trust or through the Game and Fish Department.”

He said only if the expenses keep accumulating would he suggest turning to the operators.

The fund was intended to last until 2033.

For the complete article see the 11-02-2010 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 11-02-2010 paper.

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