More bad news for Mesa mule deer

Deer declines trigger mitigation, anger

Posted: Monday, Feb 28th, 2011
By Ron Aiken

The Wildlife Annual Planning Meeting was held on Wednesday at a jam-packed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Field Office to update the public on the process undertaken by the BLM to mitigate significant declines in mule deer herds potentially related to gas field operations and to solicit further public comment on the issue.

The mitigation process underway now began last year, when thresholds measuring the impact of energy development on the Pinedale Anticline area on wintering Mesa mule deer herds were surpassed due to the population decline of more than 15 percent either in one year or cumulatively since 2005.

According to the Pinedale Anticline Project Office’s 2010 mule deer report, mule deer abundance on the Mesa was 60-percent lower in 2009 than 2001, with a nine-year overall declining trend of 36 percent.

From 2001 to 2009, deer abundance has declined by 36 percent for the Mesa herd. Since winter drilling began on the Mesa in 2008, the Mesa herd has declined by 45 percent.

Shane DeForest, field manager for the BLM’s Pinedale Field Office, started the meeting with a recap of a previous meeting on Oct. 27, 2010, where 84 comments were collected. DeForest noted confusion about what mitigation is and is not, so he clarified that mitigation is a tool to lessen impacts (scope, intensity, frequency and/or duration), not to reverse them. He said mitigation means finding ways to avoid, minimize, rectify, reduce or compensate for undesirable results on local game herds.

Dan Stroud of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (G&F) then gave a presentation outlining potential on-site and long-term mitigation projects from a habitat perspective. Following Stroud’s presentation, the floor was opened to the public for questions and comments, and by far the most emotional issue was about the negative impacts of allowing operators to drill through winter months in prime mule-deer winter habitat.

“(Winter drilling) is the elephant in the room,” said Daniel resident Rollie Sparrowe. “I’ve been following this for a long time and was running a wildlife task force for the PAWG (Pinedale Anticline Working Group) in 2005 making critical recommendations, and we had industry participation and we said to the PAWG and the PAWG said to BLM, ‘what’s happening with the deer herd is already unacceptable in 2005, so get the right people together to do something about habitat and population’ and BLM refused.”

“In the 10 years we’ve been jousting with this, we have a deer decline and we’ve had an unwillingness of the management agencies involved to address the real issue (winter drilling).”

To recap, winter drilling was not permitted according to the original Record of Decision issued by the BLM in 2000. However, operators later petitioned BLM to allow winter operations, citing various factors and that lobbying resulted in the successful re-issuing of the Record of Decision for the Pinedale Anticline that was signed in 2008. The 2008 ROD allowed for winter activity but also included many provisions operators would have to live up to including the installation of liquids-gathering systems, a five-year suspension of drilling on the flanks of the Anticline and the establishment of concentrated drilling areas within a six-mile radius to protect wintering herds.

“All of those (efforts) were intended to work to offset the impact associated with wintertime drilling exceptions,” DeForest said.

Concerned citizens say the new decision was a poor one at best, a potentially catastrophic one at worst, as far as negative impacts to wintering wildlife. Sparrowe said anyone hoping those responsible for allowing winter drilling will admit it was a mistake shouldn’t hold their breaths.

“I predict BLM and G&F will blame the decrease on bad weather,” Sparrowe said.

Another citizen, Bev Sharpe, was equally bleak in her assessment of the threat to deer.

“Time is of the essence here and we are behind,” said Sharpe, who lamented there was no way to force operators to take a year off from winter drilling to help the herd recover.

“I see no hope for the future.”

Asked whether removing allowances for winter drilling was off the table or not, DeForest said it definitely was not--though he was quick to emphasize that potential outcome would have to be part of the process the BLM is working through now.

“The (2008) ROD provided for a sequential mitigation approach,” he said, “and the final step, in the event that repeated attempts at mitigation using one of the approaches on and off-site do not work” meaning if after repeated attempts we’re still in a situation where we have an undesirable situation (regarding mule deer numbers) “then that would be when the fourth phase, modification of operations, would take place (to address or change winter drilling).”

“So it’s not off the table,” DeForest continued. “The ROD specifically provides for it. However, it’s a question of timing and implementation of the ROD. What the public at large is aiming for is to basically redefine the provisions of the ROD and say well, we don’t need to do to do any on- or off-site mitigation; just change the ROD (to prevent winter drilling), and that’s off the table.”

“These sorts of decisions require a public planning process and all voices are afforded an opportunity to provide recommendations.

“At this point in time, to sustain the recommendations to abolish winter drilling, that would be neglecting the required public review process that’s mandated by law. That’s not an option,” DeForest concluded.

For Sparrowe, such sentiments offer little comfort.

“What we continue to hear from BLM and G&F and industry is ‘Hey, let’s not jump to conclusions (about why mule deer population is down),’” Sparrowe said. “We’re not going to address operations until the bottom falls out.”

“Well, you can kiss this deer herd goodbye if this continues even just a little while longer.”

DeForest will take public comments on the issue through March 16 and said he welcomes any suggestions to help BLM improve deer habitat and population. Reach DeForest at 307-367-5302 or Turn on JavaScript!.