RIFLE, Colo. — Outfitter Jeff Mead feels a lot more comfortable with his feet in a set of stirrups, steering his horse into the rugged Colorado forest, than on an airplane 11,000 feet over his stomping grounds.
Mead soon forgot his unease during a recent tour over his backcountry haven as he pointed to the natural gas wells springing up across the land where he has taken hunters for 15 years.
“Elk and deer move out when rigs move in,” said Mead, a lanky, mustachioed 50-year-old. “Up on the mountain during hunting season, if you sneeze, you can hear the elk running. So, don’t tell me they like eating by a drilling rig.”
The debate over what energy development is doing to wildlife is raging throughout the Rockies, where some of the nation’s richest gas deposits lie under prime wildlife habitat.
The Rocky Mountain West has seen more than 50 years of oil and gas development, but the activity has skyrocketed in recent years. But some wonder about the long-term fallout on recreation, tourism and hunting — all of which sustained parts of western Colorado after the energy industry bust in the early 1980s.
“Every industry has a life span. At some point in time, this will be over and we want to remain here,” said Keith Lambert, mayor of Rifle, Colo.
Ron Velarde, the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s northwest regional manager, said it is important to look at the whole picture.
“I think it’s going to be some interesting times, between gas development, the possibility of oil shale and coal-bed methane, right in the middle of the wildlife Mecca of the state of Colorado,” Velarde said. “I think that we all better be paying attention.”
Velarde believes it’s vital to research the cumulative impact of energy development on wildlife and he sees energy companies and environmental groups as likely partners.
Wyoming is ahead of Colorado both in the level of energy development and studying how it affects wildlife. Still, so much is unknown, said Hall Sawyer, a biologist with Western EcoSystems Technology Inc. in Cheyenne, Wyo.
A study by the consulting firm begun in 1998 and funded largely by the gas industry has found changes in the movement of mule deer as drilling has increased in their winter range in western Wyoming. Sawyer and his colleagues are still studying what that may mean for the animals in the long term.
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