New Study Finds Way to Offset Wildlife Impacts from Energy Development

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Research Identifies Where Energy Interests and Biodiversity Interests Collide

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This project is really an example of how many groups can come together and look at scientific data in an innovative way

The Nature Conservancy's work with BP America Production Company on one of the United States' most significant natural gas discoveries of our time is published as a case study in the scientific journal Bioscience this month. Conservancy scientists compared maps that highlight key habitat areas to maps of priority oil and gas drilling areas. Overlaying these images helped identify where energy interests and biodiversity interests collided.

For the study, scientists at The Nature Conservancy used a complex computer program to inventory key plant and animal species and habitats most impacted on Wyoming's Jonah Field, the nation's second-largest natural gas field located in the southwest corner of the state. The computer model is based on guidance, data and expert opinion from the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other key scientists.

"Wyoming needs a science-based approach to maintain the biodiversity compromised by energy development, and now we have a field-based example that sets a national precedent," says Dr. Joe Kiesecker, the Conservancy's Rocky Mountain science director and the study's lead author.

The Conservancy has been using this scientific approach--compiling inventories of key species and habitats and setting priorities for high-value lands--for years. But this is the first time it has ever been adapted to guide energy development mitigation efforts.

The Conservancy's goal-setting project was funded by BP America, one of the operators in the Jonah Natural Gas Field. Both sides had a stake in the outcome: BP wanted to find a way to ensure that the best sites would be identified to benefit displaced species, and the Conservancy could help guide the best possible conservation actions in support of those species, said Dave Brown, BP's regulatory affairs manager.

Before the study, companies worried that they might be wasting their mitigation dollars with "blind mitigation." They wanted a scientific process. "You knew there were areas where species were," says Brown, "but you didn't know if (those areas) were optimum."

When the Conservancy conducted its mapping project, one place "in the zone" was the Cottonwood Ranch located 20 miles away from Jonah, a place where healthy wildlife habitat remained, close to Jonah but not suitable for future drilling. The Jonah Interagency Mitigation and Reclamation Office, which manages a $24.5 million mitigation fund financed by Jonah operators BP and Encana, took notice and funded a 1,042-acre easement brokered by The Conservation Fund on the Cottonwood Ranch. The easement will limit future residential development, one of the biggest threats to sage grouse, pronghorn and other species, while maintaining the agricultural and open space values of the ranch.

Even with successes at places like the Cottonwood Ranch, the Conservancy hopes the team's study paves the way for mitigation planning to be conducted much earlier in the process than what was possible for the Jonah Field.

"Before development occurs, agency and industry decision makers can use this tool to look at the site in a larger context and plan to avoid sensitive areas as well as considering other mitigation strategies," Kiesecker said. Going forward, the Conservancy hopes its conservation science will be used to better plan development sites in the state.

"This project is really an example of how many groups can come together and look at scientific data in an innovative way," said Andrea Erickson Quiroz, the Conservancy's state director in Wyoming. "For instance, we depended greatly on the science already generated by industry and public agency partners and together were able to accomplish more than if we'd been working on our own. We're excited that the Bioscience article gives a larger audience the opportunity to review what we did and how. And this diverse team has created precedent setting work - but the proof is in how well this approach helps the key players make well-founded decisions."

Several other projects in the Intermountain West are already under way using the Jonah Field approach but incorporating the mitigation analysis earlier in the development process. Kiesecker and his team believe the approach can also be refined and applied to many industrial-scale efforts--even housing developments. The Conservancy has also taken the approach global: a team of Conservancy and Colombian scientists recently began a pilot project with the government of Colombia to offset a coal mine that builds on the precedent set for the Jonah Field.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. To date, the Conservancy and its more than one million members have been responsible for the protection of more than 18 million acres in the United States and have helped preserve more than 117 million acres in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at http://www.nature.org.

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Blythe Thomas

Aaron Drew
The Nature Conservancy Rocky Mountain Region
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