From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 17 - July 25, 2002
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Merna seismic project under fire

by Cat Urbigkit

A coalition of environmental groups have asked the Bureau of Land Management to deny a seismic energy exploration project in the Merna area.

The eight groups claim the project will harm big game herds in the southern portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The groups that include the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Wyoming Chapter Sierra Club, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A press release issued by the groups last week states that "A recent study authored by academic and agency biologists makes clear that this project could further challenge local antelope and mule deer populations which are already stressed by current drought conditions."

The 290-square-mile seismic project has been proposed by Veritas DGC, Land Inc. and is slated to begin this fall and continue for three to five months in an area that includes key wildlife winter habitat and migration corridors, according to the press release.

The environmental groups cite a recent scientific paper co-authored by University of Wyoming researchers with Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Doug McWhirter and BLM biologist Keith Andrews, both of Pinedale. The paper is entitled, "Potential effects of oil and gas development on mule deer and pronghorn population in Western Wyoming."

The paper stated "extensive energy development in the Green River Basin is thought to pose the most serious and large-scale threat to mule deer and pronghorn populations."

The paper urged protection of seasonal ranges for big game animals, while stating that the threats to these areas include extensive energy development on BLM lands and subdivision expansion on private land.

"While our groups and members agree that minimizing dry holes and discovering where the strata that typically contain hydrocarbon reserves are located may lessen the surface disturbance of exploration and development, the BLM cannot approve this project in light of the multitude of problems that accompany the proposal," the environmental groups' 30-page letter of comment stated, it also noted that there is a headlong rush to explore the Upper Green River Bain without any careful, comprehensive analysis of the impacts of development.

"With industry having secured approval to drill thousands of new wells in the basin, and new lease rights being sold on a regular basis, the basin could end up being reduced to a single, dominant use - oil and gas production. In essence, public lands would be converted to an industrial sacrifice zone," the letter stated.

In the WG&F's official comment letter, Deputy Director Bill Wichers pointed out that his agency's comments were restricted to the BLM lands within the project area. He noted that the project area contains some crucial mule deer winter ranges.

"If operations began in the southernmost portions of the project area, it would help ensure they would be completed prior to the arrival of mule deer on crucial winter ranges" in Cora Butte and Ryegrass/Soapholes areas, Wichers wrote.

Significant migration corridors are found in the project area as well, Wichers wrote, adding that corridors are used from late October through late November and this should be addressed in BLM's environmental analysis of the seismic proposal.

In addition, Wichers wrote, "We are in the process of updating crucial winter range designations for both mule deer and moose, and these updates will overlap with the proposed project area,"

The Jackson Hole Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy submitted a letter of comment, noting that several private properties along the Hoback Rim, totaling 776 acres, are protected by 11 conservation easements held by the two organizations.

"In regard to negotiations with Veritas for access across these private properties, the land trust community will take an active role in coordination with the actual landowner," the letter stated. "The Land Trust and Conservancy are concerned that this testing will have a detrimental effect on the conservation values, which are contrary to the easements and the federal tax investment for the protection of these properties. For example, some of the easements exclude off-road access, and surface disturbance or occupancy.

"In summary, the permitting of this large-scale action by the BLM creates a de facto obligation by the landowners and the land trusts to consider allowing the degradation of the federally recognized conservation values or face future condemnation."

The BLM received letters of concern and opposition from several property owners in the Hoback Ranches Subdivision area.

Judi Adler of Bondurant expressed concern about the impact to water resources in the Hoback Ranches Subdivision and asked the BLM to consider removing this subdivision from the project area.

Brad Radakovich, homeowner in Hoback Ranches, noted that seismic projects "are a prelude to the obvious.

"I can see your 'back-door approach' to this seismic project heading to court if it is not slowed down, presented to the public in open terms, and the impact of what you allow on BLM ground analyzed as it how it affects our lives," Radakovich wrote.

Several other Hoback Ranches landowners sent letters of concern or opposition as well.

One letter requested the author's name and address be withheld from public review and asked the BLM to halt the entire project. This letter is apparently from a homeowner in the Hoback Ranches Subdivision and did not give a reason why the name should be withheld, but the BLM honored the request anyway.

This anonymous letter writer said mineral exploration and development projects in the past several years have been "cumulatively abusive to the environment.

"I am not anti-oil and gas; I am anti-oil and gas 'over-development," the letter stated.

The letter writer alleged that local economies suffer from the boom and bust cycle of energy development and "these days what is found is of little to no value to the U.S. energy supply overall.

"Ranching tends to support hydrocarbon development because it is yet another way to get something out of the land," the letter stated. "Ranching is marginal activity at best in most of the northern county areas. Most ranch lands are for sale."

The author wanted to remove "this land," presumably northern Sublette County, from development consideration.

Bill Lanning of the BLM said since the seismic project was first proposed, the plans have been changed and the Hoback Ranches subdivision has been removed from the project area when Veritas removed the northern three miles of the project from its plans.

The Wyoming Wildlife Federation (WWF), citing the magnitude of the project, said it "is bound to have significant impact on wildlife species unless stringent mitigation measures are put in place."

The noise and disturbance "could severely impact the well being" of wildlife species from big game, predators and avian species such as ducks in the area, WWF wrote. Other concerns expressed by WWF include the physical damage to sagebrush and other shrubs on big game winter ranges, animal avoidance of migration corridors, causing additional pressure on already stressed transitional ranges, and eventually causing them "to reach normal wintering areas in poorer body condition, thus increasing winter mortality."

Rollin and Bettina Sparrowe, who own property near Daniel and in the Hoback Ranches, wrote that they "are not opposed to careful development of energy resources, but want full consideration of the effects on wildlife, fisheries and human residents."

The Sparrowes recommend "not just another bureaucratic exercise," but a full-scale assessment of the existing magnitude of energy development in the Green River Basin and whether another development of this scale is needed at this time, among other issues.

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) authored the one letter lending support to the Veritas seismic project. PAW wrote that the resource-management plan for the area allows for such seismic work, which allows the operator to target the most promising areas for development with a minimal amount of disturbance. The alternative is exploratory drilling, PAW wrote.

"Seismic technology provides the necessary information that can significantly reduce the number of unsuccessful exploration and development of wells drilled; thereby significantly minimizing surface disturbance," PAW wrote.

Lanning said a third party is currently preparing the environmental analysis for the project and the BLM plans to issue its decision on the seismic project sometime in August.

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