Government and industry join to study mule deer
FARMINGTON — Oil and gas exploration in the San Juan Basin impacts more than the land – it also can have a dramatic impact on wildlife living in and around exploration areas.
The Bureau of Land Management is tasked with identifying and helping to mitigate the negative effects of exploration and production. Within the last few years, with the help of one local oil and gas company, it has undertaken an ambitious study to examine industry impacts on one aspect wildlife: mule deer.
The seven-year, half-a-million dollar Rosa Mule Deer Study was funded by WPX Energy, and in addition to the Farmington BLM office, it’s being conducted in partnership with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
Scientists from Western Ecosystems Technology, Inc., or WEST, an environmental and statistical consulting service, are spearheading the ongoing study, which examines how oil and gas operations affect the mule deer population in the Rosa, N.M., area, to the east of the southern part of Navajo Lake. The goal is to minimize impacts of energy development on this population.
The study uses radio tracking collars to collect data on mule deer habitat selection patterns, migration routes and survival rates, comparing data from times when oil and gas development is taking place with those times when industry activity is absent.
Neil Perry, wildlife biologist with the Farmington BLM office, said his agency was tasked with a multiple use mandate to do the research in order to protect the mule deer as much as possible, as herds have been declining in the past few decades for various reasons, one of which may be oil and gas development in their winter grazing grounds.
“About eight years ago, a cooperative group came together to try to evaluate the impacts of winter drilling on the mule deer,” Perry said. “We tried to come up with a win-win in order to get the data we needed, allowing (companies) to drill while the research is done.”
Perry said the Rosa area was identified for the study because it has a large oil and gas industry presence and overlaps with fields where the mule deer come down from the mountains to spend the winter, grazing and breeding.
“Winter is tough for the mule deer to get through, and we want to minimize the disturbance during this time,” said Perry.
Rosa, the area chosen for the study, encompasses approximately 78,000 acres in both western Rio Arriba and eastern San Juan Counties. It has a high densitiy of mule deer in the winter, as well as more than 1,700 producing wells. WPX has about 600 wells in the area, and plans to place an additional fourteen well pads, with sixteen horizontal wells per pad, as soon as the oil and gas industry picks up.
“This deer herd is migratory and travels 40 to 80 miles to summer ranges in Colorado, including areas north and east of Wolf Creek Pass,” said Hall Sawyer, a research biologist with WEST and one of two researchers who are overseeing and preparing the study. “Because this herd migrates such long distances, the benefits of this study will extend well beyond the San Juan Basin of New Mexico and will help inform mule deer management in Colorado and tribal lands of the Southern Ute and Jicarilla.”
The study consists of two phases. The first phase took place during the winters of 2011/2012 and 2012/2013, when the study group collected baseline data on deer movements. No oil and gas activity was allowed during the winter months for these two years.
Using GPS information collected from approximately 40 collared female mule deer, the team was able to identify which habitat the deer were returning to during winter months. Researchers also identified several major routes that most of the animals used to move from the Rosa winter range up into the mountain areas in Colorado for summer months.
Phase II of the project took place from 2014 through this year, and is continues. During this phase, development has been allowed in the Rosa area during the winter months. After the tracking collars drop off the deer subjects in April 2018, the number of locations researchers will have collected will be near one million, said Hall.
“We targeted the females for the study because males tend to get shot, and because females are important for survival,” said Perry. “They also have strong site fidelity – they tend to return to the exact same meadow year after year.”
A preliminary look at the data doesn’t show a large impact on the mule deer while production is going on in the winter, said Perry. A problem, however, is that the slump in the oil and gas industry mean that not enough exploration activity took place in the area during Phase II to be able to determine the effects on the deer’s migration habits.
“Because of the downturn, there just wasn’t a lot of development, so WPX has extended the study for a few more years,” said Heather Riley, regulatory manager for WPX. Riley said her company is optimistic more development will take place during 2017, which will provide more data for the study.
“We’re seeing oil and gas prices increase, and if they just keep increasing, WPX will say, ‘Go!’ (and will drill more wells),” she said.
Riley explained that in recent years, WPX has been drilling horizontal wells that minimize the impact of exploration on wildlife. With vertical drilling, multiple wells are set up with roads for trucks going in and out to each well. Horizontal drilling, however, allows several wells to be set up on one well pad, and the wells can be drilled radiating two miles out in different directions from this same pad, minimizing the need for multiple roads and trucks. Riley said much more product can be extracted from horizontal drilling, which leads to a reduction of impact on wildlife and surface disturbance.
“There’s a big push for us to work with BLM and the National Park Service and Forest Service more collaboratively, to identify (deer migration) routes and do more research,” said Riley. “It’s really important for the research that we get some drilling through the winter months, and that will also help our future production plans.”
Perry said if WPX had not offered to finance the Rosa Mule Deer Study, resources would not have allowed for it to be done.
“Thanks to WPX funding this project and collaborating with other agencies, we’re getting good data on how to reduce impacts and disturbances, and identifying other issues that impact this deer population,” he said.
Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.