Energy company was allowed to harass wildlife and run hunters off Battle Mountain
— November 22, 2013
GRMR Oil & Gas and its contractors managed to tick off landowners and hunters alike with its massive 136.5 square-mile Savery 3D oil and gas seismic project in the Battle Mountain area near Baggs this fall, turning what was supposed to be — for many — a once-in-a-lifetime, and probably expensive, outdoor hunting experience into something that more resembled a war zone of helicopter and ground activity.
“You know, just to my business, I figure I lost ($64,000) down the drain. I’m not going to get those guys to come back,” Dave Allen, owner of Peak View Outfitters, told WyoFile. “These guys, right now, they’re still tormenting them (wildlife). They’re still pushing them elk back in the forest. If we get 2-foot of snow, they’re dead. … They’ve tormented them, ran fat off them, ran meat off them. It’s terrible.”
Making matters worse, after months of complaints, regulatory officials seem to have all recoiled — not in dismay at the harm to wildlife and the damage to hunting and Wyoming’s reputation as a hunting designation. They recoiled from the expectations among sportsmen, wildlife enthusiasts and locals to do something meaningful about it.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management made “a good faith effort to find a balance” in coordinating the seismic work with other users, but the agency could not list any effective corrective action taken after learning there wasn’t much balance once the helicopters began flying. Wyoming Game and Fish Department staff said they were advised not to communicate directly with the operator, and instead only work through Wyoming BLM’s Rawlins Field Office. Similarly, nobody from the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments or Gov. Matt Mead’s office stepped up to insist on a workable solution.
Wyoming Game and Fish staff did consult with the BLM Rawlins Field Office — the main permitting authority over the project. And BLM did apply some of the Game and Fish input, inserting two special stipulations into GRMR’s permit: no helicopter flights over two specific hunting areas, and no early morning or evening flights over other areas to avoid prime hunting hours.
BLM officials were confident that with these two stipulations, significant disturbance to wildlife and to hunting activity would be avoided, said Tim Novotny, assistant field manager at the BLM Rawlins Field Office. But they were wrong.
The damage that incessant helicoptering over the course of the past 2.5 months has had on wildlife and a local hunting economy in this region near the Wyoming-Colorado border is difficult to overstate. Dave Allen, the outfitter, said it’s going to be difficult to get clients to come back to the region in years to come, and that means he likely will not strike lease agreements with landowners until — and if — the deer, antelope and elk come back.
Last week, Wyoming Game and Fish Department employees corroborated Allen’s assessment in their sworn testimony to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “They (hunters) were very disgruntled with the activities that did occur in this area. … Many of the hunters I talked to abandoned their hunting,” Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Tony Mong told commissioners.
I don’t suspect Wyoming Game and Fish will offer refunds to sportsmen who where chased out of hunting areas by the helicopters?
The use of helicopters to transport crews and seismic equipment was a strategy by GRMR and regulatory officials intended to abide by multiple industry restrictions crafted to avoid bigger impacts to sensitive terrain and critical wildlife habitat. So how is it, then, that this swarm of activity was allowed to occur over prime hunting grounds during hunting season, harming both wildlife and the local hunting economy?
Novotny said a big part of the timing for the project is the circumstance of seasonal restrictions on the calendar.
There are multiple “no surface occupancy” timing restrictions that apply to various lands — for big game winter ranges, for sage grouse breeding, and for raptor nesting season, among others. Novotny explained that when you place all of these different timing restrictions on the calendar, the only time of year left with no wildlife no-surface-occupancy restrictions for the entire 136.5 square mile project area is August 16 through November 14. That overlaps hunting season for deer, antelope and elk, and it’s the time of year that animals — the ones that are not harvested — must put on weight to survive the winter.
It seems like a significant oversight among the multiple agencies responsible for coordinating preservation of our natural resources and wildlife. It’s understandable how this can happen in the hodgepodge tapestry of management sewn together by a multi-headed bureaucracy. But it’s no excuse.
After pressing various regulatory staff at the state and federal levels for answers it appears that a lack of care and foresight resulted, first, in permitting seismic activity over such a large area all at once. This 136.5 square mile area covers a lot of varied terrain, and therefore that large land mass encompasses multiple habitats with different timing restrictions. Add all the various timing restrictions to the calendar, and the only open window is directly over hunting season.
If state and federal regulatory staff had more foresight — and more support and flexibility from their managers — they might have insisted that GRMR conduct its seismic work in phases, covering different portions of the 136.5 square mile project at different times of the year, meaning fewer timing restrictions would apply to any one piece of the project.
With this level of care and detail, maybe we could have avoided completely, or at least minimized, the onslaught of helicopter and ground seismic work during hunting season. This is a seismic project, after all, and nothing’s going to change in the geologic structure from September to March or June.
Either this didn’t occur to regulatory staff, or the company successfully convinced regulatory managers that it was much more convenient — and cheaper — for the company to shoot seismic over the entire 136.5 square mile area in one extremely disruptive campaign during hunting season. It’s a shame that heli-buzzing ungulates and hunters alike this fall didn’t compel authorities to immediately take effective corrective action, or at least attempt to be more creative and more forceful in appealing to the operator’s sense of responsibility to be a good neighbor.
— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has covered energy and natural resource issues in Wyoming for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer
If you enjoyed this column and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.