The New Death Valley: How Energy Development is Killing Wyoming Pronghorn and Mule Deer Herds

The Jonah Gas Field, south of Pinedale, Wyoming. The BLM recently authorized an “infill” project here that will increase the number of wells from 500 to as many as 3,600. For many years, gas production across the West hummed along in the background, usually welcome for bringing in tax revenues, cash, and jobs. But over the past five years, Federal agencies charged with administering public lands (such as the Bureau of Land Management) have adopted a policy that puts rapid extraction of oil and gas above all other considerations. This means that private industry has been, in essence, given permission to develop public lands with little concern for their impact on wildlife, water quality, and the traditional concept of multiple use. This development requires the construction of road networks and pipelines to service each gas well, and a near constant stream of truck traffic to establish and service the rigs and their infrastructure. Air quality suffers from the constantly-running machinery. Migration corridors for big game are blocked or destroyed, winter range rendered unusable in the short term by traffic and construction, and in the longest term–decades in the future–by the invasion of noxious weeds like spotted knapweed whose seeds travel in on the trucks and take root in disturbed ground around the wells. Peter Aengst
A satellite view of the Jonah Gas Field, in 1986 The satellite images above and in the following two slides provide a telling view of the problem. They show the Jonah Gas Field, a rich source of natural gas located south of the town of Pinedale, Wyoming. In this photo, taken in 1986, the land was still mostly used for cattle grazing and for winter range for pronghorn and mule deer. Watch the increase, from 1999 to 2005, in the number of wells and miles of heavily-used roads that connect them.
Another satellite image of the Jonah Gas Field, taken 13 years later. This second photo is of the Jonah in 1999. I visited the field in March a few years later, and watched herds of pronghorn struggling to pass through berms of snow-“some of them ten feet tall-“that had been created by the constant plowing of the roads built to service the wells. The animals that made it onto the roads then met the traffic of big rigs honking at them to get out of the way.
The United States uses 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas every year, and the Energy Information Administration, a government agency, estimates that natural gas consumption will rise 60% by 2020. This is the Jonah Field in 2005. It is now an industrialized landscape. Even though this is public land, there are no regulations as to how many wells can be drilled here. Even though the technology exists to drill many wells from a single pad, minimizing disturbance to the land and the need to build so many roads, there are no regulations to require the use of that technology. And although the law states that the impacts of such development on big game and game birds like sage grouse are supposed to be mitigated, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to figure out how (click here to see an internal memo in which they candidly admit this) before issuing the permits to drill. Populations of sage grouse and big game in the area are decreasing as a result. Dave Vlcek, the BLM’s archeologist in the Upper Green, told me in 2003, “The Jonah Field is not technically closed to hunting. You can go out there in the fall and hunt antelope if you want to, but I can’t really see anybody doing that.-¿
A winter drilling operation on the Pinedale Anticline, whose crucial winter range for mule deer is supposed to be seasonally closed to drilling. Those are the Wind Rivers in the background. It’s not just the Jonah Field area that’s threatened by unchecked energy development in the Green River valley. Sportsmen are also concerned about development underway on the Pinedale Anticline, known locally (it is near the town of Pinedale, Wyo.) as “the Mesa.-¿ The Mesa is officially designated “crucial big game winter range-¿ (read: pronghorn and muleys) by the BLM, and strict rules prevent development in the area during the winter. But the local BLM office granted exceptions to those rules,* and in December of last year, as mule deer tried to move onto their winter range, more than 11,000 vehicle trips were recorded on the 516 miles of new roads that serve the growing matrix of well sites. BLM planners say that full development will double that mileage, and result in gas wells spaced as close as forty acres apart, twice as close as they are now on the Jonah Field. Did this relaxing of the rules affect the game herds? Industry studies released last spring showed that 46 percent of the mule deer that used the range had disappeared. And pronghorn collared in a similar study could not be found. Hall Sawyer, lead biologist in the mule deer study, and a lifelong elk and deer hunter, had this to say; “I meet a lot of hunters who don’t seem to worry about this development, because it is not in the places where they hunt. But these effects are not local. The mule deer on the Mesa are coming from summer range in at least four different mountain ranges. If you don’t have the winter range, you won’t have the big game in the hunting country either.-¿ *According to an analysis by Trout Unlimited, the BLM office in Pinedale granted more than 80% of the exemptions that the energy industry requested last year for drilling in big game winter range. The Pinedale BLM also granted every request for exemption to regulations designed to protect other wildlife, including sage grouse. Linda Baker
Heavy smoke caused by flaring operations at natural gas well located on state land near Pinedale, Wyoming. It is far too easy to point out what’s wrong with the world, the terrible things that “other people-¿ are doing to each other and to the environment. But the rush of energy development in the last of the unspoiled places of the West is not the fault of “other people.-¿ It is done for us, and it is done by us. It is a choice. If we drill the estimated 82,000 gas wells and build the 26,000 miles of new roads, and the 53,000 miles of new pipelines that are planned for the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, we might supply almost two years worth of the natural gas we need across the nation. We can drill the incomparable wilderness of New Mexico’s Valle Vidal, the Jack Morrow Hills, the elk country of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the winter range of northern Colorado, the sky-island wilderness of Colorado’s Roan Plateau, and on and on and on. A lot of money will be made, a lot of gas produced and burned. But we will always have to live with the fact that we made a choice. The most powerful nation on earth, with the greatest entrepreneurs and the most educated scientists and engineers, made a choice to drill the last of its wild country instead of making a rush to improve the efficiency of its energy use. According to Randy Udall, who directs the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen, Colorado, ( the most advanced natural gas-fired power plants in the U.S. are only 55 percent efficient, and the majority of them waste two-thirds of the gas they use. And sixty million gas-fired hot water heaters in the US run at 50 percent efficiency, when the technology is already available to achieve 90 percent efficiency. The list of possible improvements in efficiency is as long as the list of places waiting to be roaded and drilled. “We are making a choice here,-¿ Udall said, “of using energy instead of ingenuity. If you add up the numbers, you can actually say this: For want of an energy policy focused on efficient use, the Rockies were lost. That is the choice we are making now.-¿ William Belveal