Co-existence of energy development and mule deer in Piceance Basin presents challenges and opportunities

RBC I A recently released study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado State University describing the effects of energy development on mule deer in the Piceance Basin has prompted public discussion and media reports about energy companies and wildlife, and whether the two can coexist.
Piceance Basin is an energy-rich area located across the borders of northern Garfield and southern Rio Blanco counties in Western Colorado.

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Several companies are currently active in the Piceance Basin, including XTO, Encana, WPX, Marathon and Petroleum Development Corp. Because some have been exploring at an almost constant pace in the last decade, portions of the basin’s habitat has become fragmented, leading to changes in mule deer movement and migration patterns in those areas, according to the recent research.
Although the impacts to mule deer from energy exploration are a cause for concern, the same energy companies working in the area have also voluntarily funded invaluable, ongoing research, including the most recent study, to learn more about impacts and possible solutions.
This has helped CPW and CSU develop mitigation programs that allow critical energy development to continue in the Piceance, while minimizing or offsetting impacts to wildlife.
“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 adds 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,” Velarde said. “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 developments, 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,” Velarde said. “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/COWestSlopeMuleDeerStrategy Summit.aspx