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Western Public Lands

Sportsmen Release Report on Responsible Energy Development

A new report by sportsmen promotes upfront planning to better safeguard wildlife habitat. Image: iStock

DENVER -- Longtime Colorado sportsmen and women remember the hunting opportunities of the so-called “mule-deer factory” in the northwest part of the state. The area was renowned for producing so many deer that it seemed automatic. The area’s White River herd numbered more than 100,000 in the early 1980s.

However, the herd’s current size is estimated at 30,550, less than half the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s objective of 67,500. Although the decline is likely due to an accumulation of factors, one issue looms large – the existence of more than 2,700 wells in the Piceance Basin and the accompanying increases in new roads, pipelines and traffic. A plan by the Bureau of Land Management White River Field Office projects another 15,000 wells could be drilled in the next 20 years.

Now that development has taken hold, efforts to strike a balance and recover important wildlife habitat is a lot more difficult. The time to strike a balance and plan for energy development is before a network of roads and drill pads carve up the landscape and degrade important habitat.

Lessons Learned

A new report released by the Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development coalition and endorsed by several fishing and hunting businesses urges smart-from-the-start planning, public engagement and consideration of the long-term impacts on fishing and hunting opportunities. The report, “Lessons Learned: A Blueprint for Securing our Energy Future While Preserving America’s Sporting Heritage,” features examples of where oil and gas production was well-planned, where it wasn’t and where the potential remains to do things right.

As the Trump administration explores ways to streamline and speed up approval of leases and drilling on public lands, it’s more important than ever to promote responsible energy development and ensue that high-quality opportunities to hunt and fish on public lands are sustained long into the future.

Here is a look at a landscape where we’re playing catch-up to conserve important wildlife habitat.

“This place was once a mule-deer factory: A look at Colorado’s Piceance Basin.”

The Piceance Basin in northwestern Colorado is a near picture-perfect Western landscape: rugged, rocky cliffs, sweeping sage-brush expanses, forested mountainsides and the Colorado River flowing through the bottom lands. 

Along with the iconic setting come herds of mule deer and elk, greater sage-grouse strutting on their breeding grounds and high-elevation streams with genetically pure cutthroat trout.  The home of the White River deer herd in a portion of the Piceance has been called Colorado’s “mule-deer factory” because for many years the herd was one of the country’s largest. 

However, it’s not clear if the title still fits. State wildlife officials estimated the herd’s size at more than 100,000 deer in the early 1980s. But recent aerial surveys and computer modeling put the herd’s population at an estimated 30,550, less than half of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s objective of 67,500.  

Energy development, the growing human population, drought and predators have all been blamed for the declines. But energy development’s footprint is big in the Piceance Basin – and likely will grow even bigger. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the area’s Mancos Shale Formation holds 66.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to heat 15 million homes for a year.  

Big footprint

The basin also holds a massive oil-shale reserve. Companies have been trying for decades to find ways to economically mine oil shale, or kerogen, that the Government Accountability Office has said could be the world’s largest crude oil resource.     

A drilling boom that began in the Piceance in the early 2000s went bust when natural gas prices plummeted due to over-supplies and the Great Recession took hold. When the dust settled, there were thousands of wells, accompanying pipelines and new roads carved into mesas and hillsides.  

There are 2,703 wells in the area managed by the Bureau of Land Management’s White River Field Office, which oversees much of the Piceance. Of those, 1,796 are on BLM lands. The BLM’s updated plan for the area projects another 15,000 new wells could be drilled during the next 20 years. About 61 percent of the federal minerals available for leasing in the White River area has already been leased. 

Sportsmen and women want to see strong safeguards for public lands and comprehensive planning from the start, before leases are approved, to ensure responsible energy development. 

“In the case of the Piceance Basin, we’re left trying to play catch-up when it comes to conserving one of the region’s most vital wildlife areas,” says Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife Federations public lands policy director. “It’s always tough to try to strengthen conservation measures after the fact and so much of the land in the basin has already been leased.” 

Some of the steps the BLM can take for smart-from-the-start development are: 

  • Upfront assessment of the natural resources 
  • Steps to avoid or minimize development’s impact on the fish, wildlife and water resources 
  • A comprehensive approach to planning rather than a piecemeal, lease-by-lease tack 
  • Early and regular involvement of diverse interests, including hunters, anglers, community members and recreationists 

Striking the right balance on uses of our public lands is important for the overall economy. A 2014 state study found that outdoor recreation generated $9.3 billion in economic benefits annually in northwest Colorado and supported 91,822 jobs.  

Natural gas wells in the Piceance Basin. Image: Judith Kohler

Increased drilling in the Piceance will heighten concerns about wildlife and the potential effects on hunting and fishing. An analysis by the National Wildlife Federation found a dramatic decrease in the number of hunting licenses offered for bucks during the rifle seasons for the White River herd. The total to be offered in 2017 is 2,895 licenses, compared with 11,760 licenses offered in 2005. 

Lifelong sportsman Kent Ingram, president of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, has noticed the changes. After hunting in the Piceance for decades, he now goes other places.  

"I don't want to hunt places where the population numbers are low. I don't want to add to an already stressed situation,” Ingram says. “Further, the deer have been moving away from the fragmented areas where their habitat has been disturbed." 


Learn more about the balance between energy development, habitat, and sportsmen’s access. Read about other lessons learned in Wyoming's Greater Little Mountain area and New Mexico's Vermejo Park Ranch. Or download the full report.

Sunday, August 13, 2017