Environment: Why are Colorado wildlife biologists apologizing for the energy industry?

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Mule deer populations in northwest Colorado have taken a bit hit from energy development

‘Just pointing fingers at the energy industry is not a helpful solution to this difficult issue’

Staff Report

FRISCO — A recent study showing that energy development in northwest Colorado significantly affects wildlife habitat drew national attention, and a curious reaction from Colorado’s wildlife agency, which seemed to be apologizing on behalf of the energy industry.

The study showed that the region’s dwindling mule deer population shies well away from active drilling, to a distance of at least 800 meters. Deer displayed more nuanced responses to other infrastructure, avoiding pads with active production and roads to a greater degree during the day than night.

When they added up the impacts, the researchers found that the responses equate to alteration of mule deer behavior by human development in more than 50 percent of the critical winter range in the study area during the day and over 25 percent at night.

The study looked at the Piceance Basin, where  XTO, Encana, WPX, Marathon, and Petroleum Development Corporation are all actively exploiting fossil fuel resources. Ten years of nonstop drilling have fragmented habitat, leading to changes in mule deer movement and migration patterns in those areas, Colorado Parks and Wildlife said in a press release last week.

The agency acknowledged that impacts to mule deer from energy exploration are a cause for concern, then went on to say that the energy companies have also voluntarily funded research to learn more about impacts, and possible solutions.

“The public needs to recognize that much of what we know was made possible through research generously funded by energy companies,” said Ron Velarde, CPW’s northwest regional manager. “This is very important because, just like in other areas across Colorado and the country, energy exploration within important wildlife habitat will likely continue for many years.”

Velarde said that CPW will continue to provide recommendations to all energy companies for exploring in a responsible manner.

“Only effective partnerships and cooperation will ensure healthy wildlife populations for generations to come,” he said. “We will work with any company willing to come to the table, now and into the future.”

The research confirms that implemented mitigation techniques recommended by CPW and utilized by energy companies have been effective in reducing impacts to mule deer, including placing numerous wells on one pad rather than spreading them over a larger area, providing strategically placed wildlife seclusion areas, and the creation of effective buffer zones using existing topography and vegetation.

“Without the funds for this research, it could have taken many more years before we found effective mitigation,” adds Velarde. “This is one example of how cooperation has worked.”

Wildlife managers stress that mule deer populations in Colorado’s Northwest Region, and in other western states, have experienced a significant decline due to impacts from numerous sources including a variety of development, an increasing human population, increasing outdoor recreation in critical winter range, predation, impacts from severe winters or drought, high traffic volume, disease and an overall degradation of habitat.

With statewide mule deer numbers down to approximately 400,000 from an objective of 600,000, Colorado Parks and Wildlife embarked on an unprecedented public outreach effort in 2014, asking the public for their input and recommendations to help form the agency’s response to the decline.

The outreach culminated in the development of the Colorado West Slope Mule Deer Strategy, a plan consisting of seven components specifically aimed at addressing the decreasing numbers.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission approved the strategy last December and CPW recently approved an initial outlay of $500,000 for managers to begin implementing portions of the plan.

Velarde says that corporations often get all the blame for impacts to ecosystems; however, he adds that it is important to recognize when those same corporations willingly come forward to offer help and find solutions.

“Mule deer, and other wildlife are facing challenges from several sources,” said Velarde. “People need to start thinking about how their own activities affect wildlife, and what they can do to help. Just pointing fingers at the energy industry is not a helpful solution to this difficult issue.”

For more information about mule deer, and the West Slope Mule Deer Strategy, visit www.cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/CO-WestSlopeMuleDeerStrategySummit.aspx

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