Fisheries Conservation photo

_by Kirk Deeter


On our third and final day of the adventure, we traveled far downstream from Meeker, past the trophy trout waters and into the epicenter of the latest drilling operations in the Mesa Verde Play in the northern basin of Piceance Creek. We brought along Scott Warner, an avid elk and mule deer hunter from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, who has hunted this specific area (Unit 22) for the past 15 years.

While this unit has traditionally been one of the hottest mule deer spots in the state (it is home to one of the largest migrating mule deer herds in America), Warner said he has seen decreased production as drilling operations have ramped up. As we stood atop the Cathedral Bluffs, a giant earth formation that towers over the creeks and draws that feed the White, Warner said: “You used to get on top of the mesa at night, and look east and see nothing but dark silhouettes of the rocks, and stars above. And now you see the twinkles of dozens of gas wells. The deer hunting is not nearly what it was–not even close.”

But the reality is that those oil and gas operations are needed. In many cases, energy companies are among the strongest allies (and funders) behind regional conservation efforts. And the energy they tap is vital–not only to the country, but especially those in Rio Blanco County. Seventy-five percent of revenues in Rio Blanco County are now energy related.

Kai Turner, a county commissioner, is also a fifth-generation resident of the area. He’s an outfitter and fishing guide as well. “There’s a special feeling you get when you’re in the White River Basin,” Turner said. “Whether you’re riding horses in the high country or fishing on the river. The Ute Indians called the White the Smoking River, and there’s still a spiritual connection that awakens the senses.”

There also happen to be billions of barrels of oil sharing reserve in the area.

“We, as a county, support multiple use philosophies,” said Turner. “And the decisions that get made, should be local decisions, made by those who live here. We worry about it. We care about it. And we see the value in all the resources.”


Trout Unlimited, for the record, is not opposed to energy development in the region. It’s a matter of ensuring that things are done with utmost concern for the watershed. And doing things “the right way” means considering the total watershed. After all, 88 percent of the species here rely on the riparian habitat, which comprises only one to four percent of the total land mass.

In other words–one way or another–the elk herds, the mule deer, the native trout, the people, as well as the lands and water, are connected in the White River Basin.

Especially in spirit.