Issue: February, 2008
Author: Andrea Erickson Quiroz and Kerry Brophy Lloyd
Printable Version (PDF)
Scientific Planning Helps Wyoming’s Wildlife Treasures
As the nation’s thirst for natural gas continues to drive energy development in Wyoming, concern mounts over the impacts to what many consider America’s backcountry. Wyomingites question if damage to the landscape and the environment can truly be compensated.
Scientists at The Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit conservation organization, have set out to address this question in a very new way. For more than 50 years, the Conservancy has used scientific methods to locate and prioritize biologically-important lands and waters. In 2007, the organization’s Wyoming program took a new twist on a longstanding conservation approach: planning for energy development sites in a way that maintains biodiversity.
The Nature Conservancy’s first-of-its kind plan aimed to help industry and land managers think more proactively about conservation—ideally before drilling projects even begin. Whereas many environmental groups focus on litigation as a tool to influence energy development, the Conservancy wanted to take a more collaborative tact, one that promised to raise the conservation planning process to a higher scientific level.
The Conservancy’s project focused on southwest Wyoming’s Jonah Natural Gas Field, one of the largest energy development areas in the nation, with well pads and infrastructure covering more than 30,000 acres. The Jonah Natural Gas Field provides some of the richest wildlife habitat in the lower 48 states with mountains, sagebrush steppe and high desert terrain.
For several months, Conservancy scientists worked to better understand what has been lost on the Jonah Natural Gas Field. Their inventory included sage grouse winter and breeding habitat, pronghorn migration routes, occurrences of rare plant populations and more. They also looked at nearby landscapes that, if conserved, could continue to support habitat for these plants and animals.
Computers and Maps Churn Out Results
The Conservancy’s complex scientific model required months of computer-based analysis. Scientists overlaid maps identifying wildlife and plant habitat with maps showing landscape quality and future development risks throughout southwest Wyoming.
The end product was a computer-generated map that serves as a guide to decision-makers identifying places on the ground where mitigation can best recapture lost habitat. Scientists focused on what is called “off-site” mitigation—conservation strategies on lands located away from the Jonah Field.
The Conservancy’s final plan also suggested optimal numbers of mountain plover, sage grouse, pronghorn, rare plants and more that should be maintained in southwest Wyoming in order to ensure each population’s survival. In addition, the study includes suggestions for habitat conservation, restoration, and specific management practices for various species.
A New Approach
Until now, mitigation planning has primarily involved endangered species recovery efforts and wetlands restoration. The Conservancy’s new model is the first to use this planning process for energy development.
Our approach also varies widely from how most environmental organizations address energy development. Many groups follow a pattern that begins when a public agency issues what is known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a written document that outlines the environmental impacts of a proposed development project. In response, countless environmental groups step up to file lawsuits, a practice that has mixed results on the West’s public lands. Sometimes these efforts delay drilling projects, but in many cases the development moves ahead unobstructed.
While the EIS is intended as a scientific review of a particular drilling project, it often serves more as a defense against litigation. An EIS measures the potential impact of energy development, but it doesn’t provide any guidelines for conservation activities. Our science-based plan on the Jonah Field, however, puts conservation science out in front in order to safeguard important habitat for plants and animals. It is our hope that this heralds a new trend in the mitigation process, one that could lead to better energy development planning and more focused conservation. Most of all, the Conservancy hopes its new adaptation of conservation science will help land managers and industry recognize sensitive areas where energy development should be avoided.
Industry Funds Conservation Science
The Nature Conservancy’s plan for conserving wildlife habitat was funded with a grant from BP America Production Co., one of the principal operators on the Jonah Natural Gas Field. While there was no legal or regulatory obligation for BP to fund the study, the energy company wanted a way to ensure mitigation dollars for the Jonah Field go toward projects that are science-based and have maximum conservation outcomes.
And it looks like that has happened. The final computer-generated map has gone to Wyoming’s Jonah Interagency Reclamation and Mitigation Office (JIO), a multi-agency office that manages a $24 million mitigation account provided by BP and EnCana. This group now has a road map to follow when funding projects that boost habitat for a range of different plant and animal species impacted on the Jonah Field.
From habitat acquisition, to restoration, and ongoing management practices like invasive weed removal and prescribed burns, JIO projects can now align with science-based goals. Projects may also include voluntary land conservation agreements, which restrict development in perpetuity and preserve vital open space in Wyoming.
A key question facing all conservation practitioners is: “Are our actions effective in achieving our conservation goals?” Setting specific goals for the number and distribution of conservation targets within prioritized areas will now allow scientists, as well as project partners, to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation actions.
Estimates suggest that Wyoming has only seen 10% of the energy development projected over the next 30 years. Imagine how much easier this would sit with Wyomingites if they knew there would be no net loss of biodiversity as a result of this development. That is, in essence, what the Conservancy’s plan aims to accomplish.
No net loss is possible—if we can bring the science of conservation planning to the forefront. Going forward, we hope our process will be used to better plan development sites in the state…and avoid the most sensitive areas altogether. Conservation planning needs to be the first resort, not the last, if we want to hang onto Wyoming’s wildlife treasures.
For more information about The Nature Conservancy’s work in Wyoming and around the world, visit www.nature.org/wyoming.
Andrea Erickson Quiroz is the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming, where she leads community-based planning and program development, government relations, and institutional development. Prior to joining the Conservancy’s program in Wyoming, Erickson Quiroz spent 10 years in Latin America, both as a University of Michigan Population and Environment Fellow in the Galapagos Islands, and as the Conservancy’s southern Mexico program director.
Kerry Brophy Lloyd is the communications coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming. Based in Lander, Wyoming, her focus areas include media relations, publications, website content, and strategic communications planning.
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