CSU: Natural gas pinches mule deer winter range
A new study by Colorado State University and Colorado Parks and Wildlife found that natural gas development could be harming large areas of critical winter range for mule deer.
The study used GPS tracking data collected from collared deer to quantify the impacts of natural gas development on mule deer habitat selection in the Piceance Basin of northwest Colorado. Mule deer, hailed by CPW Northwest Regional Manager Ron Velarde as “an iconic species for all of the West,” have declined in population in recent years, from 600,000 statewide in 2006 to 390,000 in 2013.
Although the exact the drivers of this decline remain enigmatic, researchers set out to find out whether energy development could play a role, or at least inhibit mule deer’s recovery.
They found that deer avoided active wells by an average of one-half mile, likely due to high human activity, including around-the-clock light, traffic and noise during drilling. As a result, between 25 and 50 percent of the animals’ critical winter range habitat is compromised by natural gas development, the study found. Critical winter range is where deer are most heavily concentrated during the winter. With deep snow limiting their movements and severe nutritional restrictions, deer rely on areas with shallow snow for access to forage.
The energy industry has supported studying its impact on deer.
“West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association member companies invested over $5 million in Piceance Basin mule deer research efforts specifically to learn how natural gas companies can minimize impacts on wildlife,” said WSCOGA Executive Director David Ludlam.
The spending, Ludlam said, “demonstrates natural gas companies take very seriously the responsibility of conserving wildlife and improving western Colorado’s scientific knowledge base.”
The study indicates that impacts in the Piceance Basin are actually less than in other areas of the West, where mule deer have seen much larger displacement due to natural gas development.
“The rugged terrain and ample vegetation cover in the Piceance Basin seems to provide refuge from some of the development impacts documented elsewhere,” said Joe Northrup, the study’s lead author and postdoctoral fellow in CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology. “Maintaining undeveloped habitat amidst development can allow species to avoid development activities, reducing the influence of those activities.”
Quantifying the distance at which energy developments impact wildlife is a critical step to reduce oil and gas industry impacts on wildlife. This information is useful to guide development plans aimed at reducing impacts and to quantify the habitat lost for implementing mitigation plans and related guidelines and regulations.
“A number of potential solutions exist for reducing impacts of energy development on wildlife,” said Chuck Anderson, mammals research section leader for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and study author. “Avoiding drilling during critical time periods for sensitive species is an obvious first step, but solid spatial planning to ensure the maintenance of refuge habitat for wildlife is critical. This may be done by reducing the zone of impact through concentrating development activity, constructing noise and light reducing barriers around drill rigs in critical habitat, and taking measures to reduce traffic.”
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