Study: drilling doesn’t impact mule deer |

Study: drilling doesn’t impact mule deer

Amanda Holt MillerPost Independent Staff
Post Independent/Kelley Cox A buck runs through a field as it is counted in a deer population survey by Kirk Beattie recently.

RIFLE – Preliminary results in a local study suggest that the native mule deer population doesn’t scare easy.Williams Production contracted Beattie Wildlife Consulting, owned by Kirk Beattie, to conduct a five-year study in the early fall of 2002 to determine if natural gas drilling impacts mule deer. This is the fourth year of that study and mule deer don’t seem to be impacted.”I’ve always been a wildlife lover,” said Dave Cesark, the principal environmental coordinator for Williams and the man who commissioned the study. “I started with the gas industry here about 10 years ago. And at public meetings I started hearing over and over again of folks stating that gas development was hurting wildlife.”Cesark became increasingly curious about the impact to wildlife. He encouraged employees on the rigs to participate in a wildlife photo contest and received several pictures of animals in and around well sites.”Then I decided I wanted to have an unbiased study,” Cesark said. “We wanted to determine if, in fact, we were having an impact.”Though mule deer have moved farther and farther away from the gas wells in the last four years, they’re still found closer to the wells than the laws of averages would suggest.The results of the study are good for Williams, and Cesark is willing to share them with the public, something he said he would have done upon completion of the study even if the results were not in his favor.

“There’s certainly somewhat of a risk there,” Cesark said of voluntarily conducting the study. “I’d hoped, certainly, that wildlife and gas development could exist together.”So far, Beattie’s study has found that there is no statistically significant relationship between gas wells and the presence of mule deer, nor does it affect their abundance and distribution. He also found that mule deer are not displaced by gas drilling.Williams wanted to study only mule deer because their populations are typically more fragile than those of elk and they are typically the most prone to disturbance, Cesark said.That’s what the purveyors of another study in Wyoming found. Western EcoSystems Technology (WEST) began actively tracking the impact of gas drilling on mule deer in Wyoming’s sage-covered wintering grounds in 2002 and found that the population had declined by 46 percent as of October 2005. That decline in the deer population correlates with an increase in natural gas drilling activity in the area.Beattie attributes the difference in results between his study and the study in Wyoming to a couple key factors. The first factor and possibly the biggest is that the herds being studied in Wyoming are migratory. They will travel 60-100 square miles between their summer and winter grounds. The deer in western Garfield County are residents who will spend their entire lives within a square mile radius, Beattie said.”Migratory deer have been shown to be more sensitive to human activity,” Beattie said, citing a California study between 1989 and 1991. “Resident deer populations are more tolerant of change.”Beattie said deer, like people, respond to external stimuli according to how predictable it is and what they perceive the degree of threat to be.Resident deer tend to remain loyal to the land where they were born and adapt to changes around them as long as they don’t feel threatened.

“The deer out there see well field truck after well field truck travel the same roads day after day,” Beattie said. “The deer expect them. If you stop and yell at them or throw rocks, they’ll probably climb back up the mountain and maybe not come down all winter if they’re scared enough.”One of the other differences between the studies is that the area in Wyoming appears to be much flatter and more sparsely vegetated, leaving fewer places for deer to hide.”With the pinion trees and canyons (here), the deer can see what’s happening a mile away and still feel safe,” Beattie said.The studyBeattie is using three different methods to track deer populations and locations. He counts pellet (deer droppings) groups annually, does monthly night-time spotlight counts between October and January and does an annual helicopter survey at the end of January.Beattie has inventories on deer in a test area, where there is gas drilling and in a control area, where there was no gas drilling at the time the study started. The control area is 10 miles southwest of Parachute, near DeBeque.”I chose that area because the terrain is similar,” Beattie said of his control area.

The population in the control area is smaller than that in the test area, but Beattie said the changes in the test area are reflected in the control area as well. Mule deer populations in both areas have been falling.Beattie randomly selected 21 sections of land from 102 sections in the test area to study.When Beattie and his assistants count pellet groups, they count it and scrape it away so that everything they find the next year is new. Beattie measures how close deer pellets are to gas wells. He measures how close he sees them in spotlight counts, as well.The results of the three different methods are significantly correlated, Beattie said. That means they all typically render the same results, which validates the methods.The median distance from gas wells where deer are spotted has grown, though the median distance between wells continues to shrink as more and more wells go up. Deer are still found closer to wells than would be predicted for a random distribution of deer, Beattie said.”There may be a threshold,” Beattie said. “There may be a density we could reach that would affect the abundance and the distribution of deer, but I haven’t seen it yet.”Contact Amanda Holt Miller: 625-3245 ext.

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