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Environment / Sustainability

ExxonMobil $5M gift supports wildlife, habitat research

February 5, 2014

Can Colorado's native plants and animals live in harmony with expanding energy production in the state?

CSU and CPW researchers attach a GPS collar to a mule deer as part of their study on the impacts of natural gas development on wildlife. Photo by CSU graduate student, Emma Lynch. $5 million to support research

Colorado State University and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) are working on a comprehensive study of potential impacts of natural gas development on wildlife and their habitats, and are working to enhance mitigation measures to reduce any identified impacts.  XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, contributed nearly $5 million to support the ongoing research, which is being conducted on both private and public land in the Piceance Creek Basin in Western Colorado.

The impacts of energy production have been found to be typically species-specific and system-specific, creating an important need for customized investigations and greater collaboration between researchers, regulators and industry. The research is at the epicenter of wildlife issues in the state, and will be the focus of a half-day plenary symposium at The Colorado Chapter of The Wildlife Society's 2014 Annual Winter Meeting Thursday, Feb. 6 in Fort Collins.

The studies are led by the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources and in collaboration with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. XTO Energy’s funding has supported more than 20 researchers (seven faculty, nine graduate students, and five CPW scientists) working on 12 projects, all aimed at improving natural resource management practices for wildlife and habitat in areas alongside natural gas production.

Unique collaborative effort

Researchers collect data on habitat vegetation in a study site seeded with Rocky mountain beeplant (Cleome serrulata).“ExxonMobil and XTO Energy are proud to be part of this unique collaborative effort,” said Romeo Perez, engineering manager, XTO Energy. “This partnership has been a great example of how private industry, academia and state agencies can work together to improve the compatibility of energy extraction with wildlife and habitat preservation.”

XTO Energy has a significant presence in Colorado and more than 250 employees in Denver, Durango, Rifle and Trinidad.

The partnered research focuses on improving natural resource management strategies for native mule deer and greater sage-grouse populations in particular as well as their habitats. The teams of researchers and wildlife managers are working to provide answers to conservation questions such as:

  • What measures can best mitigate the impacts of natural gas development on mule deer behavior?
  • Do deer become tolerant to natural gas production impacts over time?
  • Which greater sage-grouse population monitoring methods are most accurate and efficient?
  • How can we improve recommendations to conserve greater sage-grouse in this population?
  • Will mechanical habitat improvements near development activities successfully improve deer condition and site fidelity, and what techniques are best to increase mule deer forage?
  • Does mechanical habitat manipulation affect small mammal and songbird communities?
  • Does natural gas development affect neonatal mule deer survival?

Natural gas production site in the Piceance Basin. Preliminary results

Preliminary results from a mule deer behavior study utilizing GPS collars indicates that deer avoid well pads during drilling, the most active phase of development. Ongoing analyses will compare movements in different phases of natural gas development as well as habitat modifications to identify potential changes in mule deer behavior, and aid in development of mitigation measures.

One of the studies is utilizing acoustic methods to monitor mule deer’s responses to their environment. Researchers recorded 3,300 hours of acoustical data from microphone collars attached to mule deer – which provided detailed insight into the animals’ movement, feeding, and communication. The researchers found that deer pause to listen more at night and in areas where they cannot see as far due to plants or other concealment covers. These findings may impact land and noise management strategies to ensure deer can move swiftly and safely across the landscape.

Research teams have also been studying different habitat restoration methods that will increase abundance of native shrubs like bitterbrush and serviceberry, which are highly palatable to mule deer. Preliminary results from this study suggest that mechanical removal of Pinyon-Juniper overstory in combination with seeding can increase forage productivity for deer and that each method of removal has a unique effect on understory vegetation.  In particular, shrubs, which can benefit mule deer and nesting songbirds, have increased dramatically over untreated areas.  The optimal method for improving habitat for deer, small mammals, and songbirds will become clearer over the next few years.

Sustainable management practices

“CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife have worked collaboratively on energy development issues related to wildlife and their habitat since the early 1980s,” said Ken Wilson, head of CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. “Having science-based answers to these questions will help to improve sustainable management practices that benefit wildlife communities, and XTO Energy’s partnership is an incredible opportunity to collaborate on complex management challenges and ensure that wildlife always has a place at the table.”

The original agreement between CSU and XTO Energy was signed in 2010, catalyzing a surge of wildlife and habitat research projects that are ongoing in the Piceance Basin. Researchers and managers are continuing to collect and analyze data from their studies, and results will be finalized and incorporated into management practices over the next one to five years.

The Bureau of Land Management has been an important partner to the CSU and CPW research – offering the project teams invaluable knowledge of the Piceance Basin, guidance with permits, and help in identifying study sites. Other project cooperators include numerous private landowners, ranchers, and lessees; as well as companies that provide land access for research, including Encana USA, Shell, Conoco-Phillips, WPX, Oxy USA, Chevron, Berry Petroleum, and Marathon Oil.

Additional projects

Lek-Based Monitoring of Greater Sage-Grouse

The  Parachute-Piceance-Roan population of greater sage-grouse may be affected by changes in sagebrush habitat and disturbance associated with natural gas development. But monitoring small sage-grouse populations at high-elevation is challenging. Habitat use by sage-grouse is also often population-specific, so agencies may need to tailor conservation and mitigation efforts to local habitat conditions. This study will evaluate traditional lek-count methods of monitoring sage-grouse populations against two new methods, dual-frame sampling and non-invasive genetic mark-recapture; and test the effectiveness of different management approaches for protecting breeding males in areas with natural gas development. 

Population Response of Mule Deer to Natural Gas Resource Extraction and Associated Habitat Mitigation Approaches

Natural gas development may affect habitat for mule deer by reducing habitat quantity from direct removal of forage resources due to road, well pad and pipe line construction. Natural gas development may also reduce habitat quality resulting in deer movements to less desirable habitats with more truck traffic and increased human interaction. This study will evaluate the effectiveness of habitat improvement projects on and adjacent to disturbed areas in enhancing mule deer populations exposed to energy development activities.

Mule Deer Movement Behavior in Response to Natural Gas Resource Extraction

Building upon data collected in the study above, this research will examine individual mule deer movement behaviors, habitat use and demography related to development activities using GPS collars. Data has been collected on individual deer movements over a three-year period of ongoing development. Preliminary results indicate that deer avoid well pads during drilling, the most active phase of development. Ongoing analyses will compare movements in different phases of natural gas development as well as habitat modifications to identify potential changes in mule deer behavior, and aid in development of mitigation measures.

Consequences for songbirds and small mammals from mule deer habitat improvements

Due to the need for information on effective mule deer habitat improvement strategies, a habitat improvement experiment has been established to test alternative approaches to mitigate impacts from energy development on mule deer habitat using different pinyon and juniper tree removal treatments.  This project uses this experimental design to additionally test the effects of these alternate habitat improvement strategies on small mammal and songbird population dynamics and habitat use.  The research may identify treatments that maximize benefits to mule deer, small mammals and songbirds, and promote multiple-species restoration objectives. Researchers will compare estimates of abundance, occupancy, diversity, and habitat preferences among three experimental habitat improvement treatments and one control treatment to determine how these factors vary by treatment.

Evaluation of Fetal and Neonatal Survival of Mule Deer

Colorado Parks and Wildlife currently evaluates over-winter fawn survival as well as annual adult female survival, early and late-winter body conditions of adult females, deer density and deer landscape use in relation to mitigation measures designed to lessen disturbance of energy development activities. This study will incorporate fetal and neonatal survival estimates into the framework of the existing studies. This is a key aspect of mule deer population dynamics that will aid in understanding mule deer response to gas development activities and mitigation measures.