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Energy mining: large impact on mule deer herds


Velvet mule deer buck in tall grass
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Does oil and gas production hurt natural habitat? A new study conducted by Colorado State University biologist George Wittemyer suggests that not only does it hinder it, but it also may be causing detrimental ripples through one of the largest mule deer herds within the country.

According to the Public News Service, Piceance Basin, is “well known to hunters as a deer factory.” Yet, one of the world’s largest shale deposits is also located there and drilling wrecks havoc on the wintering habitat of mule deer within the area. Wittemyer’s study illustrated that current extraction activity keeps deer at least half a mile away from the sites, which reduces the overall winter range for the animals that depend on the area as food source during harsher months. 

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"In the Piceance system where we were working, it reduced the range available to the deer by between 25 and 50 percent,” Wittemyer says. “And so that's quite a substantial reduction of a winter range that we have identified as being critical to their survival."

While a U.S. Bureau of Land Management report conducted in Wyoming found similar results, methods of energy mining have not drastically changed to take wildlife and their environmental needs into the equation. Wittemyer hopes that his study will be the catalyst to begin a revision of current methods in place. 

“It's really critical that as we go about developing our domestic energy sources we do it in the smartest way possible so that we minimize the impacts on the natural systems," says Wittemyer.


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Daniel B. - posted 4 years ago on 10-13-2015 07:37:30 pm

I have lived and hunted in this area since 1988. The DOW tends to point fingers at everyone else for the decline in numbers for this particular herd. If you look at their website for the DAU associated with this herd, you will see that from approximately 1989 to 1992 they virtually eliminated the population by decimating the does. My family was guilty of this as well, the DOW gave out 2 to 3 tags to anyone who wanted them, and destroyed the population. Over the years the area has seen quite a bit of energy development, but this development has led to pipeline right of ways that are replanted with the recommended BLM seed mixes, and are then monitored by the energy companies for noxious weeds. A majority of the funding for research on the herd comes from energy companies acting as stewards of the land. That being said, I was fortunate enough to draw an archery deer tag for this area this past season. I spent 19 out of 22 days in the field. I saw more deer, and more deer sign than I have in the last 27 years of living in the area and 10 years working in the area. I was also fortunate to harvest a bull and cow elk with my bow. I think that the DOW needs to spend more time in the field throughout the area, and less time in the office and their designated study area. This unit is so thick with pinions and junipers, that the only real way to see what type of animals are there and determine the numbers, is to put boots on the ground. So on one hand, shame on the DOW for blaming energy development, but on the other hand kudos to them for turning the herd around. For there to be such a drastic increase in numbers over the last 10 years, they must be doing something right, thank goodness they have the energy companies funding their research efforts.

Josh M. - posted 4 years ago on 09-17-2015 07:45:37 pm

I'm not defending the oil companies by any means but I've seen countless deer and elk standing/feeding on the oil pads in the dead of winter. I've seen the collared deer on them too

Robb C. - posted 4 years ago on 09-17-2015 05:25:27 pm

Chris B. Funding was almost entirely from the various energy companies currently working in the area in cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. As in most science they don't "know" they think it appears to be etc.. The idea is to minimize the impact of energy development and first they needed data to try to see how much disruption and for how large an area. It's expensive. Lots of collaring and GPS.

Chris B. - posted 4 years ago on 08-25-2015 09:55:51 am
Los Angeles, CA

How much did they spend to know this?