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New study looks at how gas pads hinder food source

Wyoming mule deer

Photo credit: Shutterstock

A new study recently found that gas pads play a major role in mule deer forage in Wyoming. The paper, “Where to forage when afraid: Does perceived risk impair use of the foodscape?” was just published by the journal Ecological Applications. University of Wyoming research scientist Samantha Dwinnell, lead author of the paper, says “that the role of food was a ‘missing link’ in past research that investigated how energy development affects deer,” the Jackson Hole Daily reports. During the study, Dwinnell discovered that because winter ranges are restricted based upon vegetation, topography, snow cover, etc., once gas pads, roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure interrupt those areas, “the ranges functionally shrink.”

“Are they no longer using the landscape the way that they would be, without that disturbance present on it?” Dwinnell asked rhetorically in an interview with Jackson Hole Daily. “And that’s what we found with this research…We’re seeing they’re not really taking that risk and using that food that’s available to them there.”

However, while Dwinnell discovered “a 4.6-fold ‘indirect habitat loss’ multiplier that extends beyond the actual footprint of disturbed areas,” no area had the same results and, instead, varied considerably from one gas field to the other. For example, according to the Jackson Hole Daily, the 200,000-acre Bureau of Land Management property located south of Pinedale (where the Pinedale Anticline deer population dropped by 36% during a 15-year period while the field was being “drilled out”) had about 20% of sagebrush shoots left on the stem. Yet, on the Wyoming Range winter habitat, which overlaps the Labarge Oil and Gas Field, “only 4.3% of mule deer forage was eschewed.” In the southern portion of that range, deer functionally lost about 11% of their habitat.

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“Across three winter ranges and different development scenarios,” researchers wrote, “mule deer avoided areas close to disturbance, tended to move away from disturbance, and increased vigilant behavior near disturbance.”

Dwinnell also noted that topography seemed to play a role in which range was least affected. For example, the Anticline is “the flattest landscape” and “where the most mule deer forage goes unused” while the northern Wyoming Range is more “rugged and hillier.”

“I wish we knew why,” Dwinnell said, who acknowledged more research needed to be completed. “It’s probably a combination of a lot of things. It’s hard, because these animals, they use senses that we humans aren’t quite as in tune with.”

Fortunately, the study’s findings did find that certain steps already taken by the oil and gas industry like directional drilling has helped “minimize habitat degradation,” according to the Jackson Hole Daily.

“Development is occurring on these landscapes — it’s inevitable, a needed resource and a huge part of the state’s economy,” said Dwinnell. “Really what this research is providing is a more realistic understanding of what we can expect when this development happens.”

Other researchers include Hall Sawyer, Jill Randall, Jeff Beck, Jennifer Forbey, Gary Fralick and Kevin Monteith. 


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Gary H. - posted 2 months ago on 09-03-2019 06:39:56 am

Dillon H. is spot on. And the big ranchers continue to line their pockets at the public's expense!

Jared M. - posted 2 months ago on 09-02-2019 07:17:02 pm

This all makes sense but I am having a hard time believing the impact is more than just a “blip.” Obviously, is like to read the actual journal entry/article as I’m always more inclined to defer to science BUT I can help but think of the exploding urban deer populations across the US. Why are the urban deer “negatively impacted” when they are thriving in relatively much more disrupted terrain? It would be interesting to see a joint study between professors from Wyoming and Georgia (or even Santa Cruz) comparing the change to a more urbanized habitat.

Dillon H. - posted 2 months ago on 09-01-2019 08:37:27 pm
Douglas, Wyoming

Oil/Gas extraction may have a impact. In fact it’s undeniable it has some impact, it has to. Everything has a impact. In my opinion energy companies are the biggest scapegoats in the west. The the number one biggest threat to habitat out west. My home state of Wyoming in particular. Is without a doubt overgrazing on public lands. Summer range to winter range. It is sickening. Domestic sheep and cattle are the number 1 threat to habitat. There are many places in Wyoming where we’ll head dot the hillsides as far as the eye can see but there are many more where a single location cannot be seen for miles! The one common denominator being overgrazing across all landscapes. Stream bed destabilization, lack of riparian areas, critical shrubs and forbs so overgrazed the are almost unrecognizable, diseases... the list goes on and on. It’s disgusting!

Gary H. - posted 2 months ago on 08-29-2019 01:43:54 pm

What we really have here is a people problem. The more people the more resources we use. Its that simple.

People will choose people over animals all day long every day. Its how the world works.

I find it hard to believe that the deer are not browsing all over those well pads all year long at night. I have seen deer right up next to tank batteries raising on the newly planted grass.

The whole thing sounds like an anti-drilling campaign to me.