Mule Deer Crash!

Wintering Mule Deer Buck On Pinedale Mesa, Sublette County, Wyoming

The Pinedale Mesa mule deer herd winters on the long, mostly flat, sagebrush-covered mesa that rises just west of Pinedale, Wyoming . While the Pronghorn Passage, or Path of The Pronghorn has beed well-chronicled, the mule deer migration hasn’t been such a hot topic. Mulie Passage just doesn’t have the same ring, I guess. In the Intermountain West, deer, elk, and pronghorn move off of winter range in late fall and migrate to find forage in the sage, returning to summer range in April. In the Upper Green River Basin, mule deer and pronghorn follow several paths to over winter throughout the valley that is ringed by mountains on three sides. One of those places is Pinedale Mesa, where wildlife shares winter habitat with natural gas drilling on the second most productive gas field in North America.

The 40-50 mile journey for deer from high in the Upper Green travels through rolling sagebrush ranchlands and developments. Leaping a fence is no problem for a mule deer, like you or me hopping over a crack in a sidewalk. But crossing Trapper’s Point north of Pinedale is a major obstacle, where deer coming off of Cora Butte cross Highway 191 in front of accelerating traffic. When we there earlier this month, I watched deer bound over a 4′ fence and head straight across the highway, right past blinking DEER CROSSING signs, a dead doe on the shoulder, food for ravens and magpies. Northbound cars picking up speed from Pinedale are right on top of the deer when they crest the hill just past Trapper’s Point. But that’s not their biggest nightmare in the roundtrip to The Mesa.

Against the protestations of conservationists and sportsmen, (you knew where this was heading didn’t you?) the BLM has allowed Questar to drill The Mesa through winter with directional drilling techniques. Directional drilling allows the gas (or oil) driller to bore several wells from a single well pad. It sounds good for wildlife on paper, but as predicted the Pinedale mule deer herd is in trouble, big trouble. Since 2001, the herd population has dropped by a staggering 60% to the lowest numbers on record. Staggering is the right descriptor here because last spring, at the end of the second consecutive mild winter, 30% of the herd literally dropped dead in a single spring migration event. I’ve talked to Hall Sawyer of Western Ecosystems Technogy, Inc. about the losses and Hall described picking up carcasses along the migration route last summer – deer had just collapsed during spring migration. The Sawyer/Nielson report is referenced in this Casper Trib article. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is appealing the BLM decision to drill through winter on The Mesa.

For five days this December, I drove up The Mesa morning and evening to make images of mule deer, gas rigs, pronghorn, and beauty – yes, I would prefer to photograph pretty things. The only other vehicles up there were workers in the gas fields, lots of Questar trucks. Deer were scattered throughout the sage, with a couple of large herds on the graded sides of the road, finding nutrition in the new growth. I was lucky to be up there that late in the season – the road was closed to the public on December 15 to protect deer on winter range. The gas trucks and rigs will still be there all winter, adding stress in an unforgiving season. I’ve heard winter described as a race against the clock to get enough calories and survive. Is constant traffic and navigating an industrial zone enough additional stress to push the herd over the edge? While photographing two gas rigs in early morning fog, I watched a single buck walk through a maze of storage tanks and shipping containers. The deer walked past a gas rig and dropped over a ridge, then skirted a plastic fence. He was headed towards a gas rig on the next ridge when I lost sight of him. For those few minutes, one majestic mule deer buck was metaphor for the plight of the Pinedale mule deer herd.

Wildland development requires constant monitoring; and if studies indicate that maybe the wildlife will be ok with directional drilling from a few well pads, then crash to the lowest numbers on record, it’s time to re-calibrate the strategy. A lot of Westerners would appreciate the BLM standing up and telling us that the science dictates they take a different approach on our lands. The developer won’t voluntarily offer to take the rigs off The Mesa for the well-being of wildlife – they are begging to be regulated. What will it take for the responsible agency to say “we screwed up”? Throughout the Intermountain West, cumulative impacts of habitat fragmentation and habitat loss are being recorded in declining numbers of sage grouse, sage sparrow, sage thrasher, Brewer’s sparrow (all canaries in the coal mine), mule deer and numerous other species. So can we directly link the Pinedale mule deer collapse to Questar’s winter rigs? Probably not, because it’s a tipping point, one more stress-inducing industrial land mine thrown in the “Mulie Migration.” Bureau of Land Management: it’s time to stop and admit that mistakes were made. There’s no coincidence that this herd has declined steadily, and now precipitously, since drilling started on Pinedale Mesa. Listen to the science, don’t drill Noble Basin (on the migration path), take those damn rigs off of The Mesa in fall and give these animals freedom to roam!

Brightly lit rigs before dawn on The Mesa – It’s never dark in the industrial zone.

With Pinedale in thick fog, a colorful winter sunrise lights the sky over the mighty Wind River Range and sagebrush-covered Pinedale Mesa.

A mule deer buck with harem near gas equipment in sunset light on The Mesa.

Collision victim on Highway 191, just past Trapper’s Point

Mule deer in frosty sage on Pinedale Mesa, with a Wind River Range backdrop

Mule deer browsing on a fracking pond excavation mound near a gas rig on Pinedale Mesa. The Sawyer/Nielson report documents well pad avoidance on The Mesa.

3 thoughts on “Mule Deer Crash!

  1. Another great article, Dave. The first photo is so beautiful… as are some of those other ones too… the ones without the drills! Though even your night drill photo is beautiful in a moon-colonization type of way.

    One thing that crosses my mind: If a “drill-baby-drill” type of person ran across these photos of the deer and the drills (without reading your article, which they probably wouldn’t), I wonder if they would interpret these photos as examples of how the deer can exist peacefully right next to the drills. I mean, they look like they’re just kind of hanging out right next to the drills. Which makes me realize how important it is to keep the words tied to the photos… to have captions… to keep the context intact.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Jack. I can see where the images of animals next to an industrial area give the appearance of peaceful coexistance, and I’m looking for the right juxtapositions and tension with my images. There are tough choices to make when surrounded by so much beauty and I could easily take pretty pictures that exclude gas rigs, roads, industrial facilities, and dead animals. But the animals have a hard time in winter and continuing to chop up their range is a problem across the West. I’m driven to tell that story and seek solutions by working with the top conservation leaders in the region. Hall Sawyer helped to inform this article, enabling me to add context to the images. I’m grateful for the support of Hall and many others.

      When I photographed deer in a graded area along the road, on a drilling rig excavation mound (which was actually several hundred yards from the gas rig), and next to storage facilities, I was reminded of images of caribou next to an oil pipeline. Those that choose to disregard science (there’s that word again) would tell us that caribou love the pipeline, and a third of the people would believe that because somebody repeated it five times. But my observation with the deer is that these industrial installations sit on land they’ve wintered on for thousands of years, and nutritious grasses have grown in the disturbed soil. Do they love trucks and roads? Of course not, they’re simply guided by survival instaincts that we can only presume to understand. My observations aside, the Sawyer/Nielson report is quite damning for winter drilling on The Mesa and is prescient with so much more development on the way. Wildlife need a voice, and images only work when they’re combined with activism.

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