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A five-year Colorado Parks and Wildlife research project is improving techniques to restore wildlife habitat in northwest Colorado’s Piceance Basin after intense energy development.
The Piceance Basin, a 7,100-square-mile area in Rio Blanco County northeast of Grand Junction, is an irreplaceable wildlife area — the largest migratory mule deer herd in the country spends the winter in the basin and a small population of a threatened sage-grouse species lives there year-round.
“Excellent restoration of wildlife habitat following energy development is possible over a wide range of elevations in northwestern Colorado,” said Danielle Johnston, CPW’s wildlife habitat researcher. “However, restoration there is challenging because there is so much variety in elevation, moisture and soil conditions.”
The Piceance Basin has become a world-class energy field with thousands of producing natural gas wells and hundreds of new wells drilled each year. Several energy companies funded the $400,000 research project to improve the quality of reclamation work.
The most promising techniques for restoring the wildlife habitat include creating a bumpy soil surface, re-seeding with a mix that includes large amounts of broadleaf plants (flax, penstemon and buckwheat), light application of a widely used herbicide to control weed seeds, and using a super-absorbent soil additive, Johnston said.
“The Piceance Basin … provides an ideal laboratory for a large-scale study of restoration techniques,” Johnston said. “This is unique and precious habitat. How well we restore this landscape is our legacy to our children and our state.”
Starting in 2008, Johnston tested a variety of techniques through a series of six experiments at 12 sites at varying elevations in the Piceance Basin. The sites simulated conditions around well pads and pipelines, including the wide range of precipitation, soils and other conditions.
At the fenced sites, she tested various combinations of native plant seeds, herbicides, mulch, and soil treatments, including compacting and plowing the ground. Johnston said weeds, especially cheatgrass, were a significant problem at the lower elevation sites, but the herbicide combined with planting over a bumpy surface of mounds and holes — which traps weed seeds — was effective in controlling weeds.
“We learned which methods were effective and which were not,” she said. “That will save time and money when the techniques are used on larger landscapes.”
Johnston said the most effective treatments were comparable in cost to the restoration techniques currently being used. At middle and higher elevations, using the bumpy surface without herbicide, and planting a seed mix that is primarily forbs — a broad-leaved herb such as clover — was the most effective
Shell Oil Co., Marathon Oil Corp., Encana Corp., Exxon Corp. and WPX Energy funded the research, and WPX has used the findings in reclaiming land after installing pipelines.
“Colorado Parks and Wildlife recognizes the financial support the energy companies have committed to helping us preserve and enhance wildlife habitat in this area,” said Northwest Regional Manager Ron Velarde. “We look forward to these continued partnerships on future mitigation projects in the Piceance Basin, as well as across the region and the state.”