Results of 5-year study show need for even more ecosystem manipulation to remediate impacts from oil and gas drilling in ‘irreplacable’ habitat
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — As deer herds in northwest Colorado have dwindled in recent years, wildlife biologists are trying to figure out if they can restore habitat after intensive energy development, which overlaps with the key migratory route for the largest mule deer herd in the country.
A five-year study led by Colorado Parks and Wildlife show some promise, officials said this week. Several energy companies funded the $400,000 research project to improve the quality of reclamation work.
“Excellent restoration of wildlife habitat following energy development is possible over a wide range of elevations in northwestern Colorado,” said Danielle Johnston, a wildlife habitat researcher with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “However, restoration there is challenging because there is so much variety in elevation, moisture and soil conditions.”
A key focus of the research is the 7,100-square-mile Piceance Basin, northeast of Grand Junction. The basin is an irreplaceable wildlife area and an intensely developed energy field, with thousands of producing natural gas wells and hundreds of new wells drilled each year.
The most promising techniques for restoring the wildlife habitat include creating a bumpy soil surface, re-seeding with a mix that includes large amounts of broadleaf plants (flax, penstemon and buckwheat), light application of a widely used herbicide to control weed seeds, and using a super-absorbent soil additive, Johnston said.
“This is unique and precious habitat. How well we restore this landscape is our legacy to our children and our state,” she said.
Starting in 2008, Johnston tested a variety of techniques through a series of six experiments at 12 sites at varying elevations in the Piceance Basin. The sites simulated conditions around well pads and pipelines, including the wide range of precipitation, soils and other conditions.
At the fenced sites, she tested various combinations of native plant seeds, herbicides, mulch, and soil treatments, including compacting and plowing the ground. Johnston said weeds, especially cheatgrass, were a significant problem at the lower elevation sites, but the herbicide combined with planting over a bumpy surface of mounds and holes – which traps weed seeds – was effective in controlling weeds.
“We learned which methods were effective and which were not,” she said. “That will save time and money when the techniques are used on larger landscapes.”
Johnston said the most effective treatments were comparable in cost to the restoration techniques currently being used.
At middle and higher elevations, using the bumpy surface without herbicide, and planting a seed mix that is primarily forbs — a broad-leaved herb such as clover — was the most effective.
“Colorado Parks and Wildlife recognizes the financial support the energy companies have committed to helping us preserve and enhance wildlife habitat in this area,” said Northwest Regional Manager Ron Velarde. “We look forward to these continued partnerships on future mitigation projects in the Piceance Basin, as well as across the region and the state.”
For more information about the project, visit www.wildlife.state.co.us/Research/Habitat/Pages/Habitat.aspx