From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 28 - October 10, 2002
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Greens appeal Merna seismic project

by Cat Urbigkit

Six conservation groups filed an appeal last week challenged the Bureau of Land Management's decision to allow a 3-D seismograph project to go forward in the Merna region. The groups posed many of the same arguments during the planning process for the project, which the BLM responded to, but now an appeals panel will get to decide who's right.

A press release from the organizations called the BLM's approval of the project a "headlong rush to open up the Upper Green River Valley to energy exploration," and accused the federal agency of failing to complete the required "hard look" at the environmental consequences of the additional development.

It's the BLM's view that oil and gas development in the basin was addressed in several environmental impact statements, including the Pinedale Anticline EIS.

In addition, according to BLM's assessment of the project: "Geophysical exploration is essentially an inventory and data collection process to determine whether the subsurface geology contain suitable structure for mineral development. It is analogous to conducting big game inventories to determine if there are sufficient to support hunting. Geophysical projects like the Merna 3D can provide valuable insight of future actions."

The conservation groups filed their appeal with the U.S. Department of Interior's Board of Appeals (IBLA) in an effort to halt the "Merna Project," a 265-square mile project in western Sublette County that the BLM recently approved.

Joining in the appeal are the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wilderness Society, Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Scott Groene of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition said: "The BLM has failed to uphold the law. Federal law requires that the BLM review the cumulative environmental impacts of energy exploration before approving specific projects but the agency has failed to do so. Instead, the BLM continues to lease lands and to approve drilling and applications based on information that is more than 15 years old."

But the BLM maintains its environmental assessment (EA) for the project does address and consider the cumulative affects of specific past and on-going seismic projects that connect with, adjoin or overlap with the Merna project, but "it is not reasonable or practical for the EA to discuss unrelated resources located elsewhere within the Pinedale Field Office."

The Merna 3-D project is slated to start this fall and continue for three to five months in an area that includes key wildlife winter habitat and migration corridors, according to a press release issued by the groups.

"This means that it will be occurring during the onset of winter when tens of thousands of pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and other wildlife return to the area for the winter," according to the press release from the organizations

Calling the project "bad news" for Wyoming residents, Meredith Taylor of the Wyoming Outdoor Council noted the project "is in the middle of the longest seasonal migration route for mule deer and pronghorn antelope in the Lower 48."

The BLM addressed the migration corridor issue in its planning documents for the project, stating: "It is also important to remember a migration corridor is just that - a corridor. It is not necessarily a narrow constricted passageway through which all animals must pass."

While the corridor does contain two restricted bottlenecks, the seismograph project is close to, but does not include either one of these bottleneck areas. The seismograph project is expected to cause some animals to divert their path to avoid the geophysical operations, but BLM expects this divergence to be consequential.

The conservation groups also noted that the Merna project "involves an army of ATVs, 30-ton vibroseis trucks, 10-ton drill trucks, and helicopters. The operation will take place through documented big game migration corridors, and transition and winter habitat over a three and a half-month period. It is estimated that the vibroseis and drill trucks will cover approximately 1,200 miles of line, most of this off established roads. The ATVs will travel over open country an estimated 7,900 linear miles. As a result, approximately 5,000 acres, or nearly eight square miles, of vegetation will be smashed."

The BLM documents noted that the project would damage or kill about 1,480 acres of sagebrush in very narrow bands scattered uniformly across the project area. "The EA also notes that this kill/damage pattern is analogous to a sagebrush thinning and will serve to bring younger, more vibrant and succulent brush plants back to the area. These younger plants would potentially provide higher protein forage for wintering mule deer and antelope in future winters."

"This fall, hunting success could be greatly diminished by the vibe trucks, helicopters, and ATV's utilizing those hunting areas," explained Linda Baker, a librarian in Pinedale and local conservationist, according to the press release. "This is a world-class wildlife area, and the BLM must consider where further exploration should be allowed."

"In addition, BLM has no monitoring plan for either surface or ground water anywhere within the project area. There are hundreds of shallow, residential water wells throughout Daniel and Merna. Veritas will drill holes up 120 feet deep, deposit 30 pounds of explosives, and detonate them 3790 times. But they have never investigated what possible effects might result, to the aquifer's flow, direction, or recharge rate."

The groups claim that if allowed to continue, the Merna seismic project would contradict some of the key findings included in a recent scientific paper co-authored by biologists with the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Pinedale BLM, and Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Based on three years of monitoring the distribution and seasonal movement patterns of antelope and mule deer in the Upper Green River basin, the paper discusses the importance of winter range, transition habitat, and migration corridors to maintaining healthy populations in the basin.

Several of these same environmental groups also filed an appeal of the BLM's West Pinedale 3-D geophysical project last summer. That appeal was rejected, according to Pinedale Field Manager Prill Mecham. Mecham said Wednesday, "I see that many of the points they've brought up are similar."

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