Drilling vs. wildlife

Wyoming Game and Fish: Drilling proposal underestimates impact on wildlife

buy this photo MARK GOCKE Star-Tribune correspondent A young bull moose is silhouetted as it crosses the Hoback River near Hoback Junction in this October 2006 file photo. Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials say a nearby drilling proposal underestimates the project's impact on wildlife.

´╗┐JACKSON — Representatives from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department told land management officials that a proposal to drill for natural gas in the Wyoming Range could be more damaging to wildlife than the plan anticipates.

In a comment letter to Bridger-Teton National Forest officials, John Emmerich, deputy director of the Game and Fish Department, outlined 27 pages of issues with a proposal by Plains Exploration and Petroleum out of Houston to drill 136 wells on 17 pads in an area of the Wyoming Range outside Bondurant.

The agency raised issues ranging from simple typographical errors to major concerns about inconsistencies or lack of adequate information about impacts to wildlife.

Emmerich took forest officials to task over their statement that, in part, said the plan wouldn’t decrease habitat effectiveness for species such as big game.

“Direct losses of habitat, anthropogenic disturbance, habitat fragmentation, etc. are all examples of ways that habitat effectiveness is decreased,” Emmerich wrote.

Game and Fish pushed back on the Forest Service’s contention in the draft environmental impact statement that “The effects on the hunting and recreation sectors of the economy would be limited because of the potential for hunters and recreationists to use substantial federal lands resources available in the region.”

“This statement is not necessarily true and it is unclear what the rationale is,” Emmerich wrote. “The development will change the characteristics of the area in such a way that there would be no reason that the effects on hunting and recreation would be any different than the effects on outfitters and guides.”

Game and Fish also debated a passage in the draft environmental impact statement that said roads could be reclaimed to their original condition.

“It should be noted that this is nearly impossible to effectively do ...,” the agency wrote. “This concept should be more realistically analyzed and the impacts disclosed.”

Game and Fish also said the draft indicates wolves will not be impacted, but wolf populations have been documented in the area and impacts need to be discussed.

Emmerich also challenged the document’s statement that if mule deer avoided the spring, summer and fall ranges in the project area, it would amount to a 3 percent reduction in that range for the Sublette herd.

“This comparison severely underestimates the cumulative impacts to mule deer and (antelope) who use the project area ...,” Game and Fish wrote.

Gary Amerine, vice president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, worked with PXP and other agencies to come up with voluntary measures the company would agree to in exchange for the approval to drill its leased rights.

The agreement, in part, stipulated that some lease acreage in critical habitat areas would be retired, and some $6 million would be contributed toward monitoring and mitigation efforts.

Amerine said Game and Fish had input on the agreement, which was finalized in December. Since then, a monitoring program of moose has begun in the area.

“We’re going to have a minimum of two years of data on those moose long before PXP even gets a record of decision,” Amerine said. “Some of those efforts are ongoing even though people are asking for them. Obviously there will be additional stuff [Department of Environmental Quality] and Game and Fish wants.”

Amerine said comments calling for more baseline data are pretty standard.

Representatives from PXP did not return an email or phone call seeking comment Friday.

PXP’s proposal began nearly a decade ago when the company submitted a proposal to drill three exploratory wells on 4.5 acres in the area of Hoback Ranches to determine the feasibility of a larger development. The Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement for the proposal and was inundated with some 19,000 public comments, mostly opposed.

The public said at the time it did not want to give approval without knowing the company’s plans should a viable energy source be found. PXP then pulled that preliminary proposal in 2007 and submitted the more detailed proposal on the table now.

Years ago, the late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., began introducing legislation that would put much of the Wyoming Range off-limits to drilling.

The Wyoming Range Legacy Act was drafted in 2007 by Thomas, who died before it was introduced. It was introduced by his successor, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and subsequently passed.

There were several valid leases not covered by the act that were “grandfathered” to allow drilling, including PXP’s parcels.

The Forest Service has said its next step is to respond to all public comments, estimated at 40,000. The timeline for a next document analyzing the company’s proposal is unclear.