Researcher: Energy development is not impacting survival of deer in Piceance

Ryan Hoffman
A mule deer buck creeps along a ridge in east Rifle.

Ongoing research in the Piceance Basin indicates there is little to no negative impact on mule deer survival from energy development, according to a leading researcher with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

That message, conveyed last week at a Garfield County Energy Advisory Board meeting, comes with qualifying details, said Chuck Anderson, mammals research section leader with CPW.

“It does alter their behavior,” he said. “You know … if they’ve got a big rig at night with lights and compressors … they’re going to stay a little farther away from that. So they modify their behavior around the different activity.”

But, Anderson went on to say, those modifications in behavior do not affect the deers’ survival or reproduction rates.

CPW has been studying energy development’s impact on deer populations in the Piceance Basin for roughly the past eight years. As CPW notes on its website, the Piceance was chosen because it has one of the largest natural gas reserves in the country and it is home to “one of Colorado’s most important mule deer populations.”

The multi-million-dollar work is supported by several public institutions and agencies, as well as hunting advocacy groups and the energy industry. While research projects historically were self-funded, financial challenges at CPW and other research entities have forced them to seek outside and impartial funding, Jerry Neal, CPW spokesman, said in an email.

Within the broader Piceance study, which is ongoing, researchers have looked at multiple factors possibly affecting mule deer survival rates. In the past two years there have been several pieces of the research published in conjunction with researchers at universities including Colorado State University.

Those published works include a look at mule deer migration patterns in response to energy development, as well as a study looking at how deer respond to different stages of development.

Those works concluded that deer traveled more quickly through more developed areas and selected areas near pads with more coverage. There is a threshold for development intensity that alters migration behavior and more dispersed development has less impact on migratory behavior.

In terms of different stages of energy development, deer show a strong avoidance for well pads during the drilling phase.

“Thus, measures aimed at mitigating impacts from drilling, such as seasonal drilling restrictions, sound and light barriers, and reductions in vehicle traffic, are likely to have the greatest benefit to deer,” the research stated.

However, the deer are able to offset those influences under the current conditions, Anderson said at last week’s meeting. In qualifying the impact in the Piceance, he noted both the use of directional drilling and lower density of well pads as contributing to the finding that energy development is not negatively impacting survival rates.

More recently, researchers have started wrapping up a look at fawns’ survival rate in relation to development. Papers have been drafted but still have to go through review, revision and ultimately publication, meaning it could be another year before this segment of the research is available to the public.

However, the results are largely in line with the previously published work in that the development is not negatively impacting survival rates, Anderson said.

Along those lines, CPW is proposing a study to continue monitoring fawn survival rates while removing a certain number of predators, bears and mountain lions in this case. A public meeting on the proposal, known as the Piceance Basin predator management plan, was hosted in Rifle back in August in Rifle. It drew mixed response from audience members — many of them were hunters supporting the proposal while others questioned aspects of it and whether or not it was humane.

The CPW commission is expected to consider the proposal in December.

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