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Paradise Lost?

Once iconic, the Piceance Basin has fallen on hard times.

The Piceance Basin in northwestern Colorado is a near picture-perfect Western landscape: rugged, rocky cliffs, sweeping sagebrush expanses, forested mountainsides and the Colorado River flowing through the bottom lands.

Along with the picturesque setting come herds of mule deer and elk, greater sage-grouse strutting on their breeding grounds and high-elevation streams with genetically pure cutthroat trout. The home of the White River deer herd in a portion of the Piceance has been called Colorado’s “mule-deer factory” because for many years the herd was one of the country’s largest.

However, it’s not clear if the title still fits. State wildlife officials estimated the herd’s size at more than 100,000 deer in the early 1980s. But recent aerial surveys and computer modeling put the herd’s population at an estimated 30,550, less than half of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s objective of 67,500. The drop in population has affected hunting opportunities, resulting in about 75 percent fewer licenses available to sportsmen for buck hunting during rifle seasons.

Energy development, human population growth, drought and predators have all been blamed for the declines. But energy development’s footprint is big in the Piceance Basin – and likely will grow even bigger. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the area’s Mancos Shale Formation holds 66.3 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas, enough to heat 15 million homes for a year. The basin also holds a massive oil-shale reserve. Companies have been trying for decades to find ways to economically mine oil shale, or kerogen, that the Government Accountability Office has said could be the world’s largest crude oil resource.

A drilling boom that began in the Piceance in the early 2000s went bust when natural gas prices plummeted due to oversupply and the Great Recession. When the dust settled, there were thousands of wells, accompanying pipelines and new roads carved into mesas and hillsides. There are 2,703 wells in the area managed by the BLM’s White River Field Office, which oversees much of the Piceance. Of those, 1,796 are on BLM lands. The updated plan for the area projects another 15,000 new wells in the next 20 years. About 61 percent of the federal minerals available for leasing in the White River area has already been leased. While the BLM has tried to minimize some of these impacts in the few remaining islands of undeveloped backcountry, the landscape has been industrialized to a point where mule deer declines are inevitable.

Sportsmen and women want to see strong safeguards for public lands and comprehensive planning from the start, before leases and drill permits are approved, to ensure responsible energy development.

In a pattern repeated across the West, little consideration was given in the Piceance Basin to the cumulative impacts of drilling, the well pads, the roads, the increased traffic and resulting fragmentation of fish and wildlife habitat, or if and how those impacts could and would be managed. Fish and wildlife have too often been treated as afterthoughts.

“In the case of the Piceance Basin, we’re left trying to play catch-up when it comes to conserving one of the region’s most vital wildlife areas,” says Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife Federation’s public lands policy director. “It’s always tough to try to strengthen conservation measures after the fact and so much of the land in the basin has already been leased.”

Some of the steps the BLM can take for smart-from-the-start development are:

  • Upfront assessment of natural resources and use of available science to inform decisions.
  • Steps to avoid or minimize development impact on fish, wildlife and water resources.
  • A comprehensive approach to planning rather than a piecemeal, lease-by-lease tactic.
  • Early and regular involvement of diverse interests, including hunters, anglers, community members and recreationists.

Striking the right balance on uses of our public lands is important for the overall economy. A 2014 state study found that outdoor recreation generated $9.3 billion in economic benefits annually and supported 91,822 jobs in northwest Colorado.

Recent studies from the area show that deer alter their behavior patterns in ways that could have negative impacts to herd recovery. Increased drilling in the Piceance will heighten concerns about wildlife and the potential effects on hunting and fishing. An analysis by NWF found a dramatic decrease in the number of hunting licenses offered for bucks during the rifle seasons for the White River herd from 11,760 offered
in 2005 to 2,895 offered in 2017.

Lifelong sportsman Kent Ingram, president of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, has noticed the changes. After hunting in the Piceance for decades, he now goes other places. “I don’t want to hunt places where the population numbers are low,” Ingram says. “I don’t want to add to an already stressed situation.”

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