Energy Development and Impacts on Wildlife

Sep 11, 2012

By Center for Western Priorities

Hunting is a way of life for many in the West, but areas with once prodigious wildlife have seen considerable declines because of energy development. Industry and the government should be held accountable for alleviating energy development’s detrimental impacts on wildlife.

Oil and gas infrastructure—well pads, roads, pipelines, and waste pits—produce significant noise and human activity, leading to fragmented landscapes and diminished habitat. Scientists have documented some of the impacts of oil and gas development to wildlife:

  • Mule deer populations in the Pinedale Anticline—a gas field in Sublette County, Wyoming—have decreased by 60 percent between 2001, when natural gas development began in earnest, and 2011.[i]
  • Mule deer across Wyoming, Colorado and Utah are well below target population levels set by state wildlife agencies to ensure healthy and huntable herds. Loss of habitat from oil and gas development has played a role in the mule deer’s struggles, which are expected to worsen as energy development intensifies in the region.

Mule deer populations are well below target population levels[ii]

  • Heavy road construction during energy development isolates elk populations from each other, and increases the risk of local population extinction by dividing wide-open landscapes into much smaller habitat areas.[iii]
  • In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, greater sage grouse populations have declined 82 percent. [iv] Aggressive oil and gas development in the region has fragmented and impaired the sage grouse’s critical habitat. Worse yet, populations are expected to continue declining with ongoing oil and gas development. The greater sage grouse is eligible for endangered species status listing under the Endangered Species Act.
  • In Northern Colorado deer and antelope populations have declined dramatically in the previous three decades. One study shows that pronghorn have declined by 64 percent in some places, while mule deer populations have decreased up to 36 percent. Declines are associated with oil and gas development in Northern Colorado and Southern Wyoming.[v]

Oil and gas development results in declining wildlife populations

Photographic examples

Photographs of the Jonah Natural Gas Field in Sublette County, Wyoming provide an indication of the effects of oil and gas development to wildlife habitat. In 1986, the landscape was virtually unfragmented, providing game and other wildlife with unlimited space to move. By 2007, the Jonah Gas Field is a fragmented landscape, littered with well pads, roads and other infrastructure.



Photo Credit: SkyTruth


One particularly gruesome example of the impacts of energy development on wildlife occurred in January 2007 near Pinedale, Wyoming. The local game warden responded to a report of a wildlife accident to discover 21 dead pronghorn scattered across a service road in the middle of the Jonah Natural Gas Field.[vi] Reportedly, the herd was running alongside the road and veered into a one-ton gas-field water hauler. Pictures from the scene provide a grisly illustration of the carnage.

Dead pronghorn from January 15, 2007 mass road kill incident.

Photo Credit: SkyTruth


Responsible Oil and Gas Development

  • The federal government must promote responsible leasing that considers multiple-uses, where energy is one of many important uses alongside hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and hiking to name just a few.
  • Industry and the government must exhibit integrity by carefully and openly planning oil and gas development to minimize wildlife impacts and mitigate potential problems before, during and after development.