Colorado Wildlife Researchers Focus on Piceance Basin

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Energy experts say Colorado's Piceance Basin is one of the largest natural gas reserves in North America. Biologists, conservationists and sportsmen value the Piceance Basin for its incredible diversity and abundance of wildlife. As the energy industry makes a move to tap the gas resource, wildlife experts are examining ways to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to wildlife and habitat.

The Piceance Basin is home to one of the largest migratory mule deer herds in the nation. It winters thousands of elk. The basin is also home to a high-elevation population of greater sage-grouse, Colorado River cutthroat trout, and numerous other species, both rare and common.

Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) researchers are working with the energy industry and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to study ways to reduce and mitigate the impacts that thousands of gas wells may have in the Piceance Basin. The DOW's Central Piceance Basin Project brings together a strong team of researchers that will implement a comprehensive, multi-species, landscape-based approach to understanding the success of existing mitigation efforts and helping to craft new mitigation strategies.

"We're looking for solutions," explained Ron Velarde, northwest regional manager for the DOW. "We want to advise energy companies on ways to minimize their impacts. As a wildlife agency, our role is to make sure that the wildlife resource survives and thrives while this work is occurring and after the gas is gone."

Collaboration

The Central Piceance Basin Project is one of the largest comprehensive energy and wildlife studies proposed to date, with an estimated cost of more than $1.3 million dollars a year over the next five to ten years. Initial support for the project is strong.

"As an agency, we stepped out on a limb and hired researchers to conduct the studies, but we aren't going to get the work done without help," added Velarde. "It isn't just money. We're asking companies, conservation groups and other agencies to work with us by providing things like volunteers, expertise, permission to access land, and agreements to allow habitat manipulations that might be outside of the norm."

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the agency that regulates drilling activity in the state, has contributed $150,000 towards the research project. The Colorado Mule Deer Association has made a $100,000 pledge to support deer research in the Piceance Basin. The national Mule Deer Foundation has also contributed $15,000. BLM is requesting $100,000 a year for five years through their budget process to support this project.

Three natural gas industry leaders - EnCana, Shell and Williams - have committed to assist with the project. In addition to pledging significant financial support, the companies have agreed to allow researchers to access thousands of acres of land the companies own in the research area.

EnCana, one of the largest natural gas firms operating in western Colorado, has pledged $900,000 in financial support for the research effort.

"Supporting a program that will ultimately inform our industry about additional ways to minimize the impacts to wildlife and their habitat while still providing a much needed clean-burning resource is an important part of doing business in Colorado," said Byron Gale, North Piceance Team Lead, EnCana Oil & Gas (USA). "As a community, we all enjoy what this great State has to offer - we want to preserve its great landscape and heritage for the generations that will follow."

Williams, another large producer in the region, has committed $550,000 to the project.

"Williams is committed to working in partnership with DOW, BLM and other agencies to conduct ground-breaking research that will provide critical data concerning Colorado's wildlife," added Rob Bleil, Williams' principal environmental specialist.

While not producing large quantities of natural gas in the Piceance, Shell is actively researching oil shale possibilities in the basin and has pledged $325,000 to the Piceance wildlife research thus far.

"We especially appreciate the cooperative and collaborative approach taken by DOW to develop real partnerships that will benefit wildlife and habitat but also accommodate the development and production of the energy Colorado needs," commented Terry O'Connor, Manager of Government Affairs for Shell Exploration and Production Company. "We plan to continue to partner with the DOW and others to develop the knowledge, understanding and expertise to not only minimize impacts to wildlife but make real improvements in management and recreation related to wildlife in Colorado."

It isn't just large companies that are supporting the effort. Delta Petroleum has pledged $25,000 over the next five years to help fund the research.

Another critical show of support for the DOW research project has come from the BLM, the federal agency that manages the majority of land and wildlife habitat in the Piceance Basin and oversees federal oil and gas leasing.

"BLM looks forward to working very closely with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and industry partners in developing these research proposals for the Piceance Basin," said Kent Walter, Field Manager for the BLM's White River Field Office. "Close coordination from the beginning and continued flexibility from all partners will ensure this research provides the most useful information to best minimize future impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat."

Assistance for the project has also been provided by environmental consulting firm Buys and Associates. Dave Diss with Buys and Associates has donated considerable time and effort to coordinate communication efforts with the dozens of energy companies operating in the region.

"The energy industry understands that better science helps everyone," explained Kim Kaal, DOW energy liaison for northwest Colorado. "This research is designed to educate all of us on how development can occur while impacts are minimized or eliminated, and that's something everyone seems willing to support."

Mule deer and elk

Big game hunting is a critical part of the tradition and the economy of many western Colorado counties. A 2002 economic study commissioned by the DOW found that big game hunting contributes more than one million dollars annually in direct expenditures to the economies of Mesa, Garfield, Rio Blanco and Moffat County. Hunters are generally from outside of the area and, unlike other revenue streams, hunters' activities generate revenue year-after-year without burdening government services or infrastructure.

Thousands of deer utilize the Piceance Basin during the year. In the winter, this critical area becomes home to even more deer as herds from the surrounding mountain areas move into the lower parts of the basin in search of food and relief from the snow.

"Our study is designed to examine mule deer response to positive changes in development practices and habitat enhancement projects," explained Chuck Anderson, DOW mule deer researcher.

To assess deer benefits, researchers will monitor factors including over-winter fawn survival, over-winter body condition of does and fawns, movement patterns and deer densities over time. The study will utilize GPS and radio telemetry collars to monitor and track the deer.

In addition to the deer population, biologists estimate that about 9,000 elk call the Piceance Basin home year around. Thousands more elk winter in the basin's lower elevation lands before returning to higher ground for the summer.

Greater sage-grouse

The greater sage-grouse has become a key focus for state and federal wildlife agencies, ranchers, energy companies and environmentalists as the bird undergoes a new review for potential inclusion under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.

"Ultimately, it is in everyone's best interest to do everything possible to keep populations healthy and avoid a listing," said Velarde. "Scientific data is needed and that's what the research aims to provide."

Avian researchers involved in the Piceance Project are starting with a project to generate detailed seasonal habitat-use maps for greater sage-grouse to help industry avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts. Researchers hope to assess sage-grouse response to removal of pinyon-juniper that has encroached into former sage-grouse habitat.

"We're also hoping to continue and expand existing greater sage-grouse monitoring efforts," explained researcher Brett Walker. "We'll be monitoring changes in survival, reproduction, habitat use and movement."

Much of the monitoring work is being done with permission on private land owned by energy companies. The companies own hundreds of thousands of acres of land and without access to these large sections, the research effort is much more difficult.

Habitat

Ask any real estate professional the three keys to real estate investing success and they'll tell you "location, location, location". It a similar story when you ask about wildlife. The three key things for wildlife to thrive are "habitat, habitat, habitat".

DOW Researcher Danielle Johnston is taking a comprehensive look at habitat factors in the Piceance Basin.

"We want to examine ways to promote restoration practices that most benefit wildlife," Johnston said. "Beyond the area around well pads, we're also interested in assessing weed control, soil manipulation and herbicide use as they apply to pipeline reclamation success."

Major pipelines crisscross the Piceance Basin with several future pipelines in the planning stages. While these pipelines raise concerns, they also provide an opportunity to determine what reclamation efforts are best in the dry, high, sage lands of the West.

Conclusion

While researchers have already begun radio-tracking sage-grouse and mule deer in the Piceance Basin, the DOW continues to meet with potential donors to raise the remaining funds necessary for the project. Groups or companies interested in partnering on the research should contact Kim Kaal, DOW energy liaison for northwest Colorado at kimberly.kaal@state.co.us.

Ask any of the ranchers who call the Piceance Basin home and they can tell you that the area has changed dramatically in the last five years. Not many of them would hazard a guess as to what the basin will look like in another thirty years. But if a team of wildlife researchers are successful, the area's abundant wildlife resource will stand witness to a unique collaborative research effort.