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Wildlife vs. energy development on the border

Wildlife vs. energy development on the border

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wildlife vs. energy development on the border
By Jessica Lowell - Wyoming Business Report

When hunting season opens later this fall along the Wyoming-Colorado border, businesses in the region can count on an annual revenue bump. Every fall, hunters from all over converge on the area for a chance at elk, pronghorn or mule deer.

"At our fine-dining restaurants, even midweek, you would need a reservation," Stacy Crimmins, Platte Valley Chamber of Commerce executive director, said from her Saratoga office.

The income that hunters bring to this south-central Wyoming town is an important bridge between the summer tourism and the winter snowmobile seasons, Crimmins said.

Although she doesn't have hard and fast numbers, a segment - outfitters and guides, hotels, motels, restaurants and stores - of the local economy depends on hunters each fall. Out-of-state hunters tend to spend more money on travel and lodging than in-state hunters, who may opt to spend the most time they can in the field, Crimmins said.

The area, so prized by hunters and the economy that supports them, is also emerging as a strong player in Wyoming's energy sector. The three largest contributors to the state's economy are energy, tourism and agriculture, with energy by far the largest sector.

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming says its members employed 20,000 people with an annual payroll of $3.6 billion in 2009, and that's only one part of the energy sector. A report issued by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in 2002 estimated that at the time, hunting generated retail sales of $135 million in Wyoming; applying the multiplier effect resulted in an economic impact of $224 million.

An energy sector that's expanding in Wyoming puts it in conflict with hunting, a portion of the tourism economy.

Hunting vs. energy

Earlier this summer, the National Wildlife Federation released a report detailing the status of game species in the region. "Population Status and Trends of Big Game and Greater Sage Grouse along the Colorado-Wyoming State Line" examines population fluctuations of elk, pronghorn, mule deer and sage grouse.
The report reviews the status of those populations across the region on both sides of the border. In Wyoming, the report examines areas in the upper North Platte River valley, western Carbon and eastern and central Sweetwater counties. In Colorado, the study area covers North Park and Routt and Moffatt counties.

The report notes the effects of severe winter weather and changes in wildlife management policies, but its chief concern is energy development in the region. It finds that although the economic downturn of the last two years has slowed development in the energy sector, exploration and development projects are now under construction across the region, and more are planned.

Unless measures are taken to reduce or mitigate the effects of energy development, which includes wind farms, transmission lines, drilling and roads, there will be negative effects on wildlife in the region, the report concludes.

"It is the opinion of many in the field of wildlife management that there will be significant negative impacts to native wildlife in their habitats. As a result of the impact of current and planned energy development, big game wildlife and greater sage grouse in the region will likely have difficulty maintaining current population levels," the study says.

"Hunting and watchable wildlife opportunities for sportsmen and other outdoor enthusiasts will likely decline as wildlife populations struggle to survive and adapt in the face of direct and indirect loss of habitat due to energy development."

Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW), said he isn't familiar with the report, but he said he has hundreds of photographs of wildlife coexisting with energy development and using energy structures as shade and protection from the weather.

Just as energy follows boom and bust cycles, wildlife populations do, too, Hinchey said. There are always claims that development is scaring away animals when energy development can improve vegetation in reclaimed areas.

"Oil and gas development in Wyoming started in 1884, six years before Wyoming became a state," he said. "If energy development were so bad, all the wildlife would have disappeared 75 years ago."

PAW represents the oil and gas industry in the state. The energy sector also includes coal and wind, as well as energy transportation, such as pipelines and transmission lines.

Walt Gasson, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, is less sanguine about the conflict. "Clearly, there are concerns around energy and wildlife populations. It's a blinding flash of the obvious for people who hunt along the border," he said.

Energy development on the scale that it's happening in Wyoming cannot help but bring impacts that are damaging to wildlife populations, including road, pipeline and transmission line construction that results in habitat fragmentation, among other things, Gasson said.

Two red flags the report raises are in mule deer and sage grouse populations, he said. Mule deer are an iconic game species in the West, and sage grouse populations are under scrutiny

"This report validates what we've been hearing from sportsmen for quite a while," Gasson said.

No one is pointing fingers or demonizing anyone, he said; increased domestic energy production reduces the need for imported energy.

"We need to be straight up and thoughtful about energy development. Hunting and fishing is a heritage for people, and that can't be expressed in dollars and cents. When those places are gone, they are gone," he said.

"Former Gov. Herschler said the tourism economy is a great sector. You've got it; you sell it, and you've still got it," Gasson explained. "If you take care of it, you have it for generations to come. I don't think it's a zero-sum game. You don't have to choose."

In the meantime, preparations for hunting season continue. Crimmins said Saratoga's calendar of events for October is pretty clear. No one schedules events or gatherings then because of the lure of hunting season.

Many Saratoga-area residents live there because of the recreation opportunities that are available, she said. "Because so many people are involved," she said, "it's harder to get things done."

Freelance writer Jessica Lowell lives and works near the Wyoming-Colorado border.  She can be reached at news@wyoming.com.

Wyoming Business Report