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Nature Conservancy Magazine: Winter 2008

Proving Ground

Can the Western Energy Boom Be Anything but a Bust for Wildlife?

By Rebecca Huntington

No signs point the way to the Jonah Field. From a two-lane highway south of tiny Pinedale, Wyoming, an unmarked turnoff simply slices west through the sage — a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

Then, after about a dozen miles, just when you expect to see pronghorn running across the open plain, you’re suddenly somewhere: Lighted towers bloom from the high desert. Traffic signs and metal structures sprout. A tart chemical smell hangs in the air, engines hum, brakes grind, and dust shimmers in the evening haze.

“The oil patch,” as Jonah is sometimes called, unrolls like a bleak quilt as far as the eye can see — 60,000 acres in all. Tanker trucks crawl along roads connecting well pads where the earth has been scraped and leveled and topped with mammoth storage tanks, casings, fittings, tubes and valves.

Nearby, pits the size of hotel swimming pools hold contaminated water. Above them, rows of carnival-colored flags, like the ones at car dealerships, flap in the wind, warning away waterfowl. Amid the miles of road and bladed ground, uniform fields of green represent efforts to replant and revive shrubs and grass cleared and crushed by drill rigs.

Welcome to Wyoming’s second-most productive natural-gas field, well on its way to tapping 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Before the latest energy boom hit the Cowboy State full throttle this decade, Wyoming’s Green River Basin — a high-desert plain bookended by the Wind River Mountains to the east and the Wyoming Range to the west — represented one of the nation’s last remaining strongholds for large, intact sagebrush ecosystems and the species that depend on them.

In this cracked-earth country, wildlife needs room to roam, room to find enough food and water to survive. Some of the world’s largest herds of pronghorn antelope migrate through the basin to their winter range. And while energy development, even in Jonah, leaves fingers of sagebrush where pronghorn still graze and burrowing owls attempt to raise their young, biodiversity begins to decay as habitats get carved into ever-smaller slices.

“We’ve already lost so much of the sagebrush, it’s frightening,” says Joseph Kiesecker, a scientist for The Nature Conservancy. As a result, pronghorn have been impacted; so, too, have burrowing owls, mule deer, sage grouse and rare plants, such as the cedar rim thistle.

Two years ago, Kiesecker was asked to figure out how to make up for the loss. Capitalizing on a $24.5 million fund created by the gas companies operating at Jonah, he set out to make recommendations for how to mitigate for the damage.

Of course, his options were limited; he was coming in after the fact. It’s not as if he could relocate a migration corridor.

Shooting in the Dark

Wyoming isn’t the only state feeling the effects of rapid energy expansion. The entire Rocky Mountain West is in the midst of a boom that took off after 2001, when a White House-appointed energy task force called for expanded production on federal lands. This part of the West doesn’t have much oil to offer, but it’s got trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. (Natural-gas consumption is projected to increase by at least 20 percent in the next decade.) Over the past several years, record numbers of drilling permits have been issued in the region.

People in Wyoming have seen plenty of energy booms in their lives, but Jonah ushered in a new era. For environmental groups, Jonah has become the poster child for energy development gone awry. Just the name has become a catch-phrase for industrialization of the Western landscape.

From above, the sagebrush plains now look pockmarked; Jonah is said to resemble a rabbit warren. There, what started a decade ago as a proposal for 500 natural gas wells spaced 80 acres apart has ballooned into a plan for 3,100 wells, known as the Jonah Infill Project.

Jonah sits on a patch of sage owned by the public and overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Part of the BLM’s job is to auction leases for underground minerals to the highest bidders, who in turn gain a right to extract those minerals. The BLM, meanwhile, retains management oversight. While Jonah’s moneymaking potential had been known for decades, its reserves were hard to tap because the geologic conditions, known as a tight-sands formation, hold the gas in tiny unconnected pockets of nearly impermeable rock. New technology and high gas prices changed that, making it possible, and lucrative, to unlock Jonah’s reserves.

In 2006, the BLM approved the infill plan; the wells are spaced just 10 acres apart. Meanwhile, the Pinedale Anticline, to the north, has developed in lockstep with Jonah, albeit with an even bigger proposal for more than 4,000 additional gas wells. And a project some are calling “Son of Jonah” is now scattering wells into the unbroken sage south and west of the patch. That field will bring even more roads, and Jonah alone could yet see up to 465 miles, along with the traffic that accompanies drilling up to 250 wells in peak years. That puts even more of a squeeze on wildlife.

Driving by a drill rig in the Anticline, Kiesecker stops to photograph a dead pronghorn. Lying on its side, covered with flies, it was likely struck by a car or truck on the busy road. “You’ve increased the access to areas that had none before,” he says, noting that human activity is as problematic for wildlife as plowing up sage.

“There was no reason to destroy as much habitat as they did,” says Linda Baker, a community organizer for the Upper Green River Valley Coalition in Pinedale, which has objected to the pace and spacing of drilling in Jonah.

Pinedale, 30-some miles north of Jonah, doesn’t have a single traffic stoplight, yet during a few days last winter, the town experienced air quality on par with Los Angeles, in large part because of drilling activities in Jonah and the Anticline. To some people in Pinedale, the initial plan at Jonah was the equivalent of the camel sticking its nose under the tent. They never saw the rest of the body coming. “It was done in such a rush,” Baker adds. “It happened before anybody realized how much damage was actually occurring.”

The field operators at Jonah — Encana Oil & Gas and BP America Production Co. — acknowledged the impact on habitat and agreed to finance the $24.5 million mitigation fund. The mitigation money is earmarked for conservation projects outside the 30,000-acre infill. The companies agreed to support projects that protect and restore up to 90,000 acres — three times as much habitat as could be lost at Jonah. Since habitat at Jonah was already badly degraded, Conservancy scientists say, drilling there was better than drilling elsewhere.

The mitigation projects would be managed by an ad hoc governmental entity, the Jonah Interagency Mitigation and Reclamation Office. But from the start, BP worried that the office’s staff lacked the tools to do the job. The company wasn’t satisfied that wildlife would truly be served, that the best sites would be identified to benefit displaced species. BP feared the process would amount to “blind mitigation.”

“You knew there were areas where species were,” says Dave Brown, regulatory affairs manager for BP, “but you didn’t know if [those areas] were optimum.”

The company wanted someone who did know. BP, Brown says, wanted someone who would bring scientific methods to the process to help the company avoid wasting money “shooting in the dark.”

Laptop Science and Fancy Math

The Conservancy’s Joe Kiesecker is as likely to be dialing in mathematical models on his laptop as he is to be collecting biological specimens from the field. The former disease ecologist once traveled the globe, collecting and documenting dead animals, recording species declines. That work was intellectually stimulating, he says, but it did nothing to reverse the downward-spiraling trends he documented.

Then, in 2006, just over a year into his post as a scientist for the Conservancy in Wyoming, BP approached the Conservancy about the mitigation work at Jonah, and Kiesecker got his opportunity to do something to turn things around.

The organization had been compiling data on biodiversity in Wyoming for more than a decade and setting priorities for conserving high-value lands. Now, with the blessing of the BLM and the Jonah interagency office, Kiesecker could use his computer to bring those inventories of key species and habitats to bear in creating offsets for Jonah.

Predictive modeling, or “fancy math,” as Kiesecker describes it, lets him run multiple scenarios for conservation based on multiple variables. He plugs in the agreed-upon goals — such as restoring and preserving pronghorn migration corridors — and the predictive model pinpoints lands that could be candidates for offsets. The model searches for corridors that are sizable and still intact, close to Jonah but not suitable for future drilling. This approach takes an entire landscape into account, Kiesecker says, and “allows you to plan and forecast away some of the uncertainty that normally exists around mitigation” efforts. That is new. In the past, when it came to mitigation, all offsets were considered equal.

Ultimately, Kiesecker and his team, including computer-modeling guru Holly Copeland, identified nine species that would be hurt by Jonah. The team set goals for conserving the species and plugged the goals into the modeling program.

When the Conservancy took mitigation recommendations to the Jonah interagency office, Kiesecker pulled out a map. The optimum sites showed up as green zones.

In the Zone

Twenty-some miles as the crow flies northwest of Jonah lie the Cottonwood Ranches. There, Dan Stroud, the Jonah interagency office’s habitat mitigation biologist from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and a crew crisscross the sagebrush counting birds. The men are here to “ground truth” Kiesecker’s model, to make sure that what’s on the ground lives up to the model’s broad predictions — in this case, that the ranches serve as prime brood-rearing habitat for grouse, where hens raise chicks on a diet of insects. 

Just after sunrise, the mosquitoes are fierce as Stroud and the other game and fish biologists set out — two on horseback, a third leading on foot with his two setters. As grouse burst toward the sky in flashes of gray or white, the men count 120-some birds, down from 265 last year. The drop may be due to a cold, wet spring resulting in poor nesting conditions. Still, that’s a big number for this 4-mile stretch.

“We don’t have a lot of energy potential out here, but what we do have is a lot of wildlife potential,” says Freddie Botur, who manages the ranches for his family.

As if on cue, a golden eagle circles above the bluff where Botur stands surveying this 1,042-acre parcel, now protected by a conservation easement. The easement is the first permanent land-preservation project paid for with Jonah mitigation money. The deal was brokered by the Conservation Fund and completed after the Conservancy’s mapping flagged the spot.

“You get good stewardship on the ground, you’re going to have wildlife,” says Stroud, who talks enthusiastically about five additional conservation easements his office now has in the works.

The easements, which prevent subdivision and development of family ranches, counter the other big threat to Western wildlife: housing development. The U.S. Census Bureau projects double-digit population growth for Western states through 2030, making Wyoming’s lonesome sage just that much more valuable as a refuge for sage-dependent species.

Looking out at the vast plain of sage, Botur acknowledges, “It’s not one of those pretty areas of forest and mountains and creeks.” The landscape is broken only by faint two-track roads fading into the distance and a ribbon of green where Muddy Creek snakes through the high-desert hills, streaked red and white from shale and clay soils too young, geologically speaking, to have mixed into a more uniform hue.

But some people would look at this spot and see a perfect place to build a home, says Stroud. Dropping down from the bluff, a grassy meadow stretches out, covered with pale purple wild irises. Indeed, the spot gets its name, Gabe Place, from one of the historic cabins that still stand as remnants of the ranch’s homesteading era.

The easement means the only home builders here will be grouse, moose, antelope, red-tailed hawks and other wildlife.

Even with successes at places like the Cotton-wood, Jonah remains an example of conservationists being a step behind, of conservation being an afterthought. Mitigation, even Kiesecker’s new brand, was tacked on at the end of the process, forcing all involved to operate on the fly.

Not surprisingly, such mitigation has its critics. “Off-site mitigation can be a very cheap way out for the oil and gas industry to avoid having to plan their projects in a way that can be environmentally sustainable,” says Erik Molvar of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, a Wyoming-based watchdog group. Ultimately, Molvar says, good planning is “more affordable and certain to actually protect the good habitat that we have in the first place.”

While off-site mitigation is an imperfect solution to habitat destruction, Kiesecker nonetheless views Jonah as a perfect proving ground for scientifically determined offsets and a springboard for even more ambitious approaches to mitigation and the kind of good planning Molvar advocates. In fact, BP has already hired the Conservancy to work on a second gas-drilling project that will dwarf Jonah.

Twenty-five air miles west of Rawlins, Wyoming, a desolate landscape, bisected by Interstate 80, encompasses the eastern end of the Red Desert, named for its red soil. This former haunt of outlaws is still home to occasional desert elk, roaming pronghorn and one of the world’s largest complexes of sage grouse breeding grounds. Here, ranchers graze cattle across a checkerboard of public and private land.

Tiny Wamsutter — a shell of a town from past energy booms and busts — is bustling again. The community anchors the Continental Divide-Creston Project, a natural-gas field that covers 1.1 million acres and could see up to 8,950 new wells. (A few thousand already operate on the site, but expanded drilling “would help meet the need, goals and objectives of the President’s National Energy Plan,” the BLM states.) The BLM estimates that construction for the project will take 15 years; the wells will have a life span of 30 to 40. In the meantime, the agency acknowledges, the project could harm water and air quality and threaten wildlife.

It’s the same scenario playing out across the West. But this time, BP is taking a new tack to manage environmental effects: It’s asking the Conservancy to step in at the earliest planning stage. The BLM is just beginning to draft the environmental impact statement that will determine when, where and how drilling occurs. BP wants Kiesecker’s modeling to be folded into that study, which will likely be issued in 2009 — before drilling takes place.

That means Kiesecker won’t just be presenting the company with maps identifying green zones for offset lands. This time, his maps will show yellow blobs to indicate “caution,” marking areas where natural-gas deposits overlap with irreplaceable habitats. “We’re not saying put a fence around them and keep everybody out. We’re saying proceed with caution,” Kiesecker says. “If we identify those places up front, then we can slate some for avoidance.”

He adds: “We’ve really identified where the flash points are.”

“This is the first time this has ever been done in an ongoing [environmental impact statement],” says BP’s Brown. “It’s definitely unique in that respect.”

Incorporating Kiesecker’s modeling into the planning stage, Brown explains, allows industry to know in advance what areas would be available for on-site and off-site mitigation. The Conservancy’s framework helps industry plan for and manage environmental risks. It also gives companies a chance to design projects in a way that increases their chances for approval by regulators and by the public.

Even so, BP’s primary concern is energy development, and according to Julie Falkner, a senior policy advisor for the Conservancy, the company and the Conservancy have acknowledged up front that there could be instances in which they differ on the approach to be taken, agreeing to disagree. The process will have to be transparent, independent and peer-reviewed to be credible, she says.

“Everybody is trying to figure out a solution, and it’s complicated and uncomfortable,” says Falkner. “But not doing something is going to be a worse position to be in.” Conservationists have no choice but to seek such solutions, uncomfortable or not, says Bruce McKenney, Conservancy senior economic advisor. “You’ve got projections for unprecedented growth and development in the mining sectors coming. What we’re doing that is different is we’re taking a more science-based approach.”

That science-based approach has many applications. The Conservancy recently launched a pilot project, in cooperation with the government of Colombia, to see if such an approach could offset the effects of a coal mine there. Several other projects in the intermountain West are under way, as well. And, in fact, the model instigated at Jonah can be refined and applied to many industrial-scale efforts — from oil and gas projects to housing developments.

With the twin realities of increased energy development and population growth, conservationists will need to look at environmental trade-offs on a much larger scale than before, says McKenney. “The alternative is to be more reactive and more ad hoc and perhaps always a step behind.”

That’s not what Joe Kiesecker has in mind. From now on, he aims to be a step ahead.

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