Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC.
Not for republication by Wyoming media.

Energy development on Western public lands has contributed to the destruction of millions of acres of mule deer habitat in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, according to a new study that calls on the federal government to protect one of the region’s most iconic animals while it still can.

The study by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) set out to assess the effectiveness of federal policies aimed at protecting mule deer habitat on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

The study focused on the Greater Green River Basin, which includes portions of southwest Wyoming, northwest Colorado and northeast Utah.

TRCP reported that while federal regulators generally recognize the importance of mule deer when considering energy development projects, BLM and Forest Service officials don’t consistently apply management policies designed to protect deer habitat, according to the study.

Example: Seasonal activity restrictions are the most commonly used tool by regulators to keep energy development from encroaching upon mule deer habitat. But TRCP reports that in Wyoming, industry often receives exemptions allowing disturbances to occur in crucial winter habitat.

The Greater Green River Basin contains about 10 million acres of mule deer crucial winter range on BLM and Forest Service land, and roughly 2.4 million acres have already been leased for development, according to TRCP.

“More than 15,000 wells already have been drilled in mule deer crucial winter range,” said Steve Belinda, director of energy programs for TRCP. “To date, most of this activity has taken place outside of the critical winter season. But how long these protective measures will continue to be applied is unknown. Industry has made no secret of its belief that these measures, which are intended to protect deer and other wildlife, are unnecessary and impediments to development.”

Beverly Gorny, a spokeswoman in BLM’s Wyoming state office, said the agency is still reviewing the study and declined to comment.

TRCP, which for years has argued for greater protections within the Greater Green River Basin, offers a number of recommendations, including developing a set of best management practices for energy projects in mule deer habitat.

“This report offers an opportunity to look ahead and do better — both for mule deer herds in the Green River Basin and across the West,” Belinda said.

Pinedale debate

The debate over energy development and mule deer protection has garnered significant attention in southwest Wyoming, which includes the Pinedale Anticline natural gas field that overlaps mule deer habitat and migration corridors.

A study on mule deer in the Pinedale Anticline presented to BLM last year found that deer populations had dropped to their lowest levels in nearly a decade, and suggested the deer herd on the nearly 200,000-acre mesa has declined to less than half its 2001 size.

BLM’s decision in 2008 to greatly expand drilling activity within the Pinedale Anticline is widely blamed by environmentalists for the mule deer population declines.

TRCP sued BLM over the 2008 drilling expansion, claiming that the agency had failed to meet its promises to protect wildlife and ignored scientific evidence that expanded drilling was harming mule deer, greater sage grouse and other imperiled species.

The group’s lawsuit, however, was denied last fall by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which concluded that “BLM was not required … to adopt the practices best suited to protecting wildlife,” but instead is tasked with balancing “the protection of wildlife with the nation’s immediate and long-term need for energy resources and the lessees right to extract natural gas.”

Still, BLM and the Forest Service should use the new TRCP study to better coordinate efforts to preserve mule deer, said Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation based in Salt Lake City.

“We have the power to address deficiencies in management that have negatively affected this prized sportsmen’s resource,” Moretti said, “and to forge a brighter future for mule deer.”

Scott Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

DOWNLOAD the TRCP mule deer habitat study.

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