At first glance the Mesa southwest of Pinedale, Wyoming, is wide and empty. Perched in the sky at 7,600 feet, this table of land is an island floating between the distant Wyoming and Wind River mountain ranges. Not a single tree grows on 300 square miles of sagebrush and yellowed grass.
A drive along one of the myriad gravel roads reveals this place is not as empty as the lonesome wind makes it feel. Two of Wyoming’s most important resources—natural gas and big game—are hiding out here among the swales and slopes. Pronghorn pick their way between towering drill rigs and mule deer bound away from passing tanker trucks.
The geologic name for the Mesa is the Pinedale Anticline. In 2008 a new Record of Decision for natural gas development in the Pinedale Anticline called for “Concentrated Phased Development.” Concentrated Phased Development sets up an experiment in which leases are suspended for five years on the margins of the gas field while development focuses in small patches in the center. The plan hypothesizes that wildlife will find refuge in undisturbed and reclaimed areas while development proceeds year round in small dense patches.
“This managed development leaves large contiguous blocks of habitat available to big game and sage grouse and can help conserve migration corridors,” states a flyer published by three of the natural gas development companies.
At the heart of this new plan is the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Matrix, which tests the hypothesis by examining how wildlife actually responds to the development. The Matrix specifies how monitoring will proceed for mule deer, pronghorn, sage-grouse, and sensitive species—white-tailed prairie dogs and pygmy rabbits—and defines the levels of population decline that will trigger mitigation measures.
Under the Bureau of Land Management’s 2008 Record of Decision for the gas field, operators—as natural gas companies including Shell, QEP Energy, and Ultra Petroleum are known—were directed to help create the wildlife monitoring protocol.
For example, according to the Record of Decision, “Specific monitoring requirements for wildlife will be developed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, in cooperation with the operators and their contractors.”
Some critics contend the industry role in the process is too large.
“It is an outright conflict of interest for industry—who may have much to lose or gain by the implementation of the monitoring—to be part of this,” Stephanie Kessler, Wyoming Program Manager for the Wilderness Society, wrote to the Bureau of Land Management (or BLM) Pinedale Field Office in spring of 2009. “Stepping over this line will be like letting the fox guard the henhouse.”
Despite this criticism, in 2009 BLM allowed operators to help write not only the monitoring protocol, but also Requests for Proposals from contractors. Operators also helped select contractors.
Industry spokesperson Darci Sinclair, representing major operators Shell, Ultra and QEP Energy(formerly Questar), said the companies have conformed strictly to Bureau of Land Management guidelines in all their dealings. “Our involvement to date is based on provisions in the [Record of Decision],” Sinclair said in an e-mail.
In addition, Sinclair noted, Shell, QEP and Ultra have voluntarily contributed millions of dollars to the Pinedale Monitoring and Mitigation fund “to provide certainty that financial support would be available in the future for monitoring and mitigating potential impacts directly related to our development activities in the Pinedale Anticline Project Areas.” Sinclair said the total contribution to the fund from the three companies is expected to reach $36 million for the duration of the development.
In response to continuing complaints from conservation groups, this winter the BLM revised the contracting process to reduce industry involvement.
Meanwhile, the Wilderness Society, joined by other Wyoming conservation groups, requested an independent review of the monitoring protocol that the operators helped write. Nationally recognized top-level biologists and statisticians with expertise for each of the designated species conducted the reviews, the last of which were recently posted to the Pinedale Anticline Project Office website.
The reviewers determined that wildlife-monitoring requirements outlined in the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Matrix and co-authored by the natural gas operators are scientifically unsound and could never detect the levels of decline that would trigger protection measures under the management plan.
“It’s not really a review, it’s actually a critique of the monitoring protocol,” Game and Fish Director John Emmerich told WyoFile regarding these independent reports of monitoring protocol. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which oversees the new contracting process, is reviewing the reviews of the monitoring protocol and will organize a public meeting later this summer to share their response, hear public input, and make any necessary changes to the monitoring protocol, which would go into effect next year.
Today 1,500 natural gas wells pierce the Pinedale Anticline and hundreds of miles of road lattice its surface. An earlier industry-funded study of mule deer in the Anticline showed a 30% decline from 2001 to 2007. And the Mesa can expect only further industrialization. Less than a tenth of recoverable gas reserves in the Pinedale Anticline have been extracted so far. Drilling is scheduled to continue through the year 2025, with production continuing until 2065. A total of 4,399 wells are allowed under the current management plan.
As managers sort out contracting processes and monitoring protocol, some of America’s most spectacular wildlife populations still await protection in their home ranges.
Adaptive management in the Pinedale Anticline Project Area
A decade ago Wyoming was poised to lead the United States into a new era of environmental planning for oil and gas development projects with the 2000 Environmental Impact Statement Record of Decision for the Pinedale Anticline.
“The Pinedale Anticline Project was the BLM’s first attempt to use adaptive management to extract oil or gas. The project was intended to showcase adaptive management and its potential to mitigate environmental concerns while facilitating development,” writes Melinda Harm Benson in her review of what has happened on the Mesa, a paper titled “Integrating Adaptive Management and Oil and Gas Development,” published in October of 2009. A professor of geography at the University of New Mexico, Benson has worked as a lobbyist and attorney for several western conservation groups, and as a lecturer and research scientist at the Haub School and Ruckleshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming.
“Adaptive management represents a breakthrough in the complexity of our thinking about natural resource challenges,” she writes.
The theory behind adaptive management is, rather than making a set plan that relies on assumptions, to collect information as development proceeds and apply that new knowledge by modifying operations as needed. Adaptive management uses a cyclical process—monitor for changes, analyze monitoring data, recommend and enact mitigation, monitor for changes, and so on—in which new information is constantly being gathered. Such a process is more responsive to real-world situations and allows for more flexibility than simply following a prescribed plan.
In 2000, many people concerned with gas development on the Mesa, from operators to environmental groups to long-time area residents, attended hearings to make sure the BLM hammered out a management plan they found acceptable. Most people welcomed adaptive management as the best scientific approach to allow gas development with the least possible environmental damage.
For wildlife, adaptive management would mean monitoring how permitted gas development affects populations and habitat use, and enacting mitigation if wildlife appeared to be in trouble. No one could predict how mule deer or sage-grouse would respond to an influx of drill rigs and traffic, and adaptive management provided a way for the BLM to gather information as development proceeded and adjust accordingly.
In 2000, the Environmental Impact Statement Record of Decision for the Pinedale Anticline allowed development of up to 700 producing wells from as many as 900 wellheads (assuming that some wells would not strike gas). It also specified seasonal restrictions. For example, crucial wintering areas for pronghorn and mule deer would be closed to surface activity from November 15 to April 30 and sage-grouse and raptor breeding and nesting grounds would be closed February 1 through July 31.
A group of stakeholders including representatives from the public, environmental organizations, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, BLM, natural gas operators, and others was assembled. This stakeholder group, called the Pinedale Anticline Working Group, was assigned, among other things, to oversee wildlife monitoring, analyze data, and recommend mitigation measures should they be needed.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency awarded the BLM’s draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Pinedale Anticline the highest rating ever given to an oil and gas project due to the innovative use of adaptive management as a way to manage real-world uncertainty in environmental problems.
However, as Benson writes, “From an adaptive management perspective, the project has been unsuccessful. The stakeholder group designed to implement the process fell apart, wildlife populations in the area are in significant decline, and oil and gas extraction is escalating, despite increasing concerns over wildlife and air quality.”
Right after publication of the innovative Record of Decision, Yates Petroleum, one of the operators in the Pinedale Anticline gas field, sued the stakeholder group for not registering under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Immediately, the stakeholder group was tied up in litigation lasting four years. From 2000 to 2004, no adaptive management took place because the stakeholder group did not exist. Yet development continued and hundreds of wells were drilled without any monitoring or mitigation.
Finally in 2004 a federal judge dismissed the suit and the stakeholder group had to start at square one, doing what they could to catch up to continuing development on the Anticline with limited data about responses from wildlife.
Revisions to the Pinedale Anticline management plan
Two other important changes occurred during the early 2000s. The 2000 development plan only accounted for vertical wells from individual surface locations, but directional drilling—a method that allows operators to drill several wells from a single surface location—came into widespread use in the Pinedale Anticline gas field.
Second, geologic exploration led to the discovery that gas reserves had been severely underestimated. In 2000, allowance for 700 producing wells seemed radical, but by 2004 it was clear this would not be anywhere near enough to extract the natural gas reserves of the area.
Eventually these changes led to the need for a new Environmental Impact Statement that would update the document published in 2000. Industry representatives worked closely with the State of Wyoming to help the BLM craft a revised document. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, environmental groups, and the public were involved to a lesser extent. In 2008 a new Record of Decision was published.
The new plan eliminated seasonal restrictions in big game and sage-grouse habitat in favor of Concentrated Phased Development, which would occur year round. It also required pipelines that would transport gas, water, and condensates from the wellheads, a process that is predicted to reduce truck traffic in the gas field by up to 165,000 truck trips per year. The new plan allows for 4,399 producing wells—a more than six-fold increase from the 2000 plan—to be drilled from only 600 surface locations, down from 900 in the original plan.
Under the new plan, once an area has been drilled, pipelines transport the natural gas, the drills are removed, and the surrounding area is reclaimed. Then drilling activity moves to a new location. Concentrated Phased Development means more natural gas can be extracted and transported quickly with reduced surface disturbance.
In the management plan of 2008, leases are suspended on the flanks of the project area and Concentrated Phased Development happens in the central core for the first five years. Suspending drilling in the flanks is meant to give wildlife space to live while development happens year-round. After five years, suspended leases will be reopened once “a comparable acreage in the core area (not needed for production operations) has been returned to functioning habitat,” according to the Record of Decision.
To determine whether habitat is functioning for wildlife, the document includes the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Matrix, stipulating changes in wildlife populations that will trigger mitigation measures for several wildlife species. This chart describes the monitoring that is supposed to protect wildlife from unintended negative consequences of natural gas extraction.
Concentrated Phased Development is an experiment in wildlife management. It is based on the hypothesis that mule deer, sage-grouse, and other species will move to areas protected from year-round drilling activity and return to reclaimed areas once drilling is complete. Adaptive management is at the foundation of the process. Thorough and accurate wildlife monitoring is crucial to test the Concentrated Phased Development hypothesis and trigger mitigation if the wildlife doesn’t respond as predicted.
Putting the plan into action: Industry involvement
The Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Matrix specifies thresholds for population or habitat declines at which point mitigation measures will be enacted to further protect mule deer, antelope, sage grouse, pygmy rabbits and white-tailed prairie dogs.
For example, according to the Matrix, if the number of active sage-grouse leks declines by 30% or if the number of pronghorn declines by 15%, mitigation steps are implemented one after another as needed in the following order:
1) habitat enhancement and protection within the Pinedale Anticline Project Area,
2) conservation easements or property rights acquisitions elsewhere in the region,
3) and finally “modification of operations.”
QEP Energy, Shell, and Ultra Petroleum contribute $7,500 per wellhead each year to a monitoring and mitigation fund. The staff and board of the Pinedale Anticline Project Office then distribute this fund though monitoring contracts and mitigation projects.
A chain of documents has grown from this Matrix including a Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Plan, Requests for Proposals for wildlife monitoring contracts, and a third-part independent review of all of these documents.
In April 2009, to meet the requirement outlined in the Matrix and Record of Decision, the BLM, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and the Pinedale operators wrote a Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Plan. This document was posted to the BLM and Pinedale Anticline Project Office websites, but the Acting Director of the Project Office does not know when it was posted. Kessler of the Wilderness Society did not find the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Plan until months after it was written. Environmental groups, local residents, and representatives of other interests were left out of the creation of the wildlife monitoring system while operators were involved.
According to the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Plan, co-authored by industry representatives, the operators were to also help write wildlife monitoring Requests for Proposals, to select contractors, and even to oversee reviews of wildlife monitoring reports.
In spring and early summer of 2009, following the behind-closed-doors creation of the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Plan, Requests for Proposals were issued for contracts to monitor white-tailed prairie dogs, pygmy rabbits, pronghorn, and mule deer. The wildlife monitoring Requests for Proposals were sent out by email rather than posted through a government-wide Internet portal as required by law for contracts over $25,000, which these were.
Sage-grouse and raptor monitoring Requests for Proposals had been sent out before the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Plan was written. The sage-grouse contract was highlighted as part of the conservation groups’ protest.
“The award of the sage-grouse contract to K.C. Harvey Soil & Water Resource Consulting, purportedly the only bidder (among six that submitted bids) which had no prior experience capturing and banding sage-grouse, raises obvious and legitimate questions whether the contract was awarded to a qualified, leave alone the most qualified, applicant,” wrote Dan Heilig of Western Resource Advocates in an October 2009 letter signed by six other conservation groups to the Pinedale BLM Field Office. “The fact that Pinedale operators had a say in the selection of wildlife contractors only adds to our concerns.”
K.C. Harvey Soil & Water Resource Consulting specializes in managing soil and water resources associated with oil and gas development, and is a subsidiary of EnerCrest, an oilfield services company. When asked about the sage-grouse monitoring, K.C. Harvey told WyoFile, “We’re no longer doing it. They changed the whole program and aren’t monitoring right now. I don’t feel authorized to comment on that.”
“To put it bluntly, it appeared to us that the oil and gas industry was attempting to influence wildlife science in order to achieve the most desirable results,” conservation groups continued in the same 2009 letter. Among the signatory groups were Western Resource Advocates, Audubon Wyoming, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Trout Unlimited, the Wilderness Society, the Upper Green River Valley Coalition, and the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
“It is important to recognize that the matrix is the underpinning for wildlife monitoring and mitigation on the Pinedale Anticline,” industry spokesperson Sinclair wrote WyoFile in an email. “We strongly support the matrix as a tool to aggressively monitor for emerging wildlife population and habitat trends.”
As of this winter the Pinedale Anticline Project Office transferred the job of writing monitoring protocol and the hiring of monitoring firms exclusively to the hands of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Industry has been relegated to joining conservation groups and the public in simply reviewing proposed contract requirements when the Game and Fish seeks bids from monitoring firms.
The monitoring requirements and their flaws
A concerned scientist who bid for one of the contracts noticed flaws in the scientific design of the monitoring and contacted the Wilderness Society, who pressured Game and Fish to conduct a review of the monitoring protocol. Last summer the Wyoming Game and Fish Department agreed to pursue a third-party review of the Requests for Proposals. The Pinedale Anticline Project Office funded this review, which was overseen by the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming.
The Wyoming Cooperative Unit is a collaboration between five different wildlife research organizations: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wildlife Management Institute, U.S. Geologic Survey, which oversees the program, and the University of Wyoming where the program is housed. Under the Wyoming Cooperative Unit, these entities conduct research to inform agency management decisions.
During the winter of 2010, the Cooperative Unit employed independent, expert biologists and statisticians from around the West to review the wildlife monitoring protocol. The reviews asked the following questions:
- Are the experimental designs and methods for monitoring described in the Monitoring Plans adequate to detect changes in the criteria identified by the Matrix within a reasonable timeframe?
- If changes in an identified criteria (i.e., change in pronghorn survival) do occur in response to energy development on the Pinedale Anticline Project Area, how likely are the monitoring methods described to detect this change and identify when stated thresholds have been met or surpassed?
The results of all four of the reviews have been consistent “no” answers to the above questions. For example, for pygmy rabbits, “the monitoring plan does not permit an estimate of density of burrows or of abundance of pygmy rabbits. So, the criterion of a 15% decline in individuals over three years cannot be evaluated using the methods proposed.”
Or for sage grouse, “the change requiring mitigation does not have a temporal component. Is the 30% decline calculated on a per year basis or is it cumulative over several years? If the change is calculated over a single year then conceivably 29% of leks could be lost each year until no leks were left and mitigation would never be invoked.”
For pronghorn, “Sample sizes for estimating individual survival rates are too low,” and “Survival rates of individual males are not part of the study, but should be.” Furthermore, the study, “treats a 15% annual decline and a 15% cumulative decline in the same manner. Obviously, these could imply very different population dynamics. Annual decline of 15% will cut a population in half in four years.”
The experts determined that wildlife-monitoring requirements co-authored by the natural gas operators are scientifically unsound. Levels of decline enough to trigger mitigation under the management plan are almost impossible to detect.
Meanwhile a previous and separate project to monitor mule deer on the Pinedale Anticline—the “Sublette Mule Deer Study” published in 2009 by Western Ecosystems Technology, Inc. and funded by QEP, Shell, Ultra, and the BLM—showed 30% declines in mule deer numbers from 2001-2007. Over this same time period mule deer declined only 10% throughout the whole Sublette herd unit spanning the surrounding Green River Basin.
Specifically, the abundance in the 2005 was 45% lower than abundance in 2001 when natural gas development ramped up on the Anticline (see table on page 5-7 of the report). From 2005 to 2007, mule deer increased slightly on the Anticline, but the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Matrix specifies the low population from 2005 as the benchmark against which future changes will be assessed.
Changing the system
Wildlife conservation groups across Wyoming have attended meetings and written letters to BLM, Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials, and the Governor’s Office asking that operators be removed from the wildlife monitoring process and that the Wyoming Cooperative Unit reviews of the monitoring protocol be taken seriously.
These groups have requested that the BLM amend the Record of Decision for gas extraction in the Pinedale Anticline to remove operators from wildlife monitoring, stop accepting recommendations from the current wildlife teams which include operator representatives, revise the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Plan to exclude operators, and limit operator access to any elements of the wildlife monitoring to the same that is afforded the public.
The BLM and Pinedale Anticline Project Office have responded by making the contracting process more transparent. This year the Requests for Proposals are available on their website for public comment, and the actual selection of contractors is handled by Wyoming Game and Fish rather than by Pinedale Anticline Project Office. Industry no longer has a special role in the process.
The Record of Decision, the directing document that outlines industry’s involvement, has not been revised. To change it, “You’d have to go through a whole new scoping process. I don’t know if that will or will not occur,” said Brian Davis, acting director of the BLM Pinedale Office in regards to amending the Record of Decision, in a phone interview with WyoFile.
“Right now we are just looking at the contracts, which is the biggest complaint. We’re addressing the contracting and working with the state of Wyoming. In the new process the Requests for Proposals will be out for public review. We’ll be following the protocol from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.”
This summer the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will meet with BLM, operators, and the public including conservation groups to discuss the results of the Wyoming Cooperative Unit review of monitoring protocol. At the planned open meeting this summer, Game and Fish will lead the discussion toward any needed restructuring of wildlife monitoring protocol. Changes will go into the Requests for Proposals for next year.
“Wyoming Game and Fish in conjunction with BLM is reviewing those critiques,” Game and Fish Director John Emmerich told WyoFile in reference to the Wyoming Cooperative Unit reviews of species monitoring protocol. “For example, with sage-grouse, they misinterpreted what we’re doing. We’re actually counting every known lek within whole area. With mule deer we probably do need to make some adjustments and increase the study area.”
Shell, QEP, and Ultra Petroleum submitted comments about the sage-grouse and sensitive species reviews including expressions of concern about the increased costs of the monitoring changes suggested by the reviewers.
“It does not appear that the reviewers took into consideration that last summer was a baseline data collection year from which future information will be based on and further analysis collected,” the operators wrote in response to the Cooperative Unit review of sensitive species monitoring. “It also appears as though many of the recommendations are very costly.
Even if BLM and Game and Fish do increase the study areas and control areas for wildlife monitoring and include data that covers a longer time frame to make the monitoring more statistically accountable, the fund for such monitoring is already drawn down too low to pay for increased monitoring over the next 20 or more years.
According to a budget posted on the Pinedale Anticline Project Office website in April of this year, a third of the available fund for monitoring and mitigation has already been spent. Of the $36 million Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Fund set up in 2008 and meant to last for 25 years, almost $10 million is used up. Some of that money has gone to off-site mitigation such as $6 million earmarked for an off-site conservation easement called the Sommers/Grindstone Conservation Project.
Industry contributors to the Wildlife Monitoring and Mitigation Fund stated in an email to WyoFile, “We (the Operators) are concerned that the Board has already committed funds for mitigation, however monitoring done to date has not deemed mitigation necessary. It must be noted that the fund is finite and was designed to pay for wildlife monitoring over the life of the project.”
If the demands of conservation groups and the suggestions outlined in the Wyoming Cooperative Unit reviews are met, correcting the monitoring protocol will be only a first step toward protecting wildlife. The pronghorn, mule deer, sage-grouse, and other species in the Pinedale Anticline Project Area still await not only an honest assessment of the affects of natural gas development, but also a quick response to shelter them from habitat loss and population declines, especially during their crucial winter and breeding seasons. Considering that decreases in sage-grouse and pronghorn can currently slip through the Wildlife Monitoring Matrix, another year or two of decision-making may be too late for these wild animals.