PXP project vs. wildlife

Report outlines drilling's threat to wildlife

Noble Basin project could impact Canada lynx, elk, mule deer, moose and other species.

By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Date: December 22, 2010

A proposed energy development in the Wyoming Range’s Noble Basin likely would impact a number of species, including big game and animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, according to a draft environmental document.

Bridger-Teton National Forest officials released a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed energy development earlier this month. It is the most stringent level of analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The plan, proposed by Plains Exploration and Production Company, calls for the upgrade of 14 miles of existing roads and the construction of nearly 15 miles of new roads and 136 wells on 17 drill pads.

The plan also calls for construction of gas and liquids pipelines and facilities. The area is expected to be in production for more than 30 years.

Under the plan’s preferred alternative, most of the impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat would be long term.

“Forested areas could take 100 years or more to return to their original, predisturbance condition,” the document says. “Some disturbance would be seasonal. ... However, such disturbances would recur on an annual basis for up to 30 years if the exploratory wells proved productive.”

The plan includes some stipulations to protect wildlife, such as a Nov. 15 cutoff date for drilling and a minimum 200-foot buffer from stream channels. A 500-foot buffer would be placed around riparian areas mapped by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“Aquatic species such as the Colorado River cutthroat trout, boreal chorus frog and boreal toad would be protected from March 15 to July 31 by not allowing in-stream channel construction during this period,” according to the document.

The amount of habitat impacted by roads, well pads and other development would amount to nearly 33 acres during the exploratory phase of the project and more than 266 acres during the development phase. Some species that are sensitive to human activity would lose considerably more habitat, the document says.

“Habitat effectiveness may be affected by the proposed project, particularly for big game and Canada lynx,” the document says. “Big game are known to avoid areas with increased road densities. ... but also avoid otherwise suitable habitats immediately adjacent to these access routes.”

Several species that are protected or that have been identified as needing protection under the Endangered Species Act would be impacted.

Drilling “may disturb, displace and affect potentially suitable habitats for the Canada lynx, gray wolf, grizzly bear and greater sage grouse,” the document says.

For Canada lynx, new roads could increase collisions with vehicles and illegal shooting or trapping. Changes in the snowpack could increase opportunities for predators that compete with the lynx for food.

Gray wolves from the Rim and the Black Butte packs, as well as individual and dispersing wolves, could also be subject to road collisions, more illegal shooting or trapping.

Further, “a decline in natural prey could cause wolves using the Noble Basin to shift to preying on livestock and increase the number of wolf-human conflicts in the region,” the document states.

However, “because so few wolves use the project area (six to nine individuals in established packs), impacts would not be expected to cause a negative population trend statewide or regionwide,” the document says.

Grizzly bears are not expected to be impacted because so few lumber by, the document says.

Greater sage grouse could be hurt by the loss of habitat as well as possible increases in the raptor population and invasive weeds.

“There is a chance that individuals could collide with moving vehicles along the existing [roads] and eggs or chicks could be crushed by construction equipment,” the document says.

Several big game species, which are known to migrate through the area, would also be affected.

Because elk are sensitive to human activities, the loss of habitat would expand up to a half mile beyond the developed area for a total loss of 22,553 acres of spring, summer and fall range and 2,058 acres of crucial winter range.

No construction activity would occur in elk calving areas from May 15 to July 1, according to the document.

Mule deer have a similar aversion to human activity, the document says. Studies show that mule deer avoid otherwise suitable habitats within 1.7 to 2.3 miles of gas wells on the Pinedale Anticline. 

While the project is not likely to immediately impact crucial mule deer range, extending the footprint out to 2.3 miles from the infrastructure footprint would impact “all of the mule deer spring/summer/fall range in the project area,” the document says.

The project could also increase collisions with mule deer.

“Additional vehicle traffic would be most intense during the construction period, when vehicles such as dump trucks would be operating 10 hours per day during the operating season,” according to the document.

The moose population could lose 3,041 acres of spring, summer and fall range and 11,920 acres of crucial winter range. The development “could therefore have a major impact on the local moose population using the Noble Basin and the project area,” the document says.

The document also lists the pronghorn antelope, American marten, Brewer’s sparrow and boreal chorus frog as species that could be impacted. The withdrawal of any water from the watershed around Noble Basin “would jeopardize the continued existence of ... Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail and razorback sucker, according to the document.

Development would occur in two phases. One would be an exploratory phase with the construction of three wells on one well pad over the course of two years, with 15 miles of roads on public land. The other would be the development phase, during which the remaining 133 wells would be constructed on six well pads.

People can mail comments to Bridger-Teton National Forest Supervisor Jacqueline Buchanan, P.O. Box 1888, Jackson, WY 83001, or e-mail them to Turn on JavaScript! with the subject line “Eagle Prospect and Noble Basin MDP DEIS.”

The plan is available at www.fs.fed.us/r4/btnf/projects/. Comments are due March 10.