Drilling in Greater Yellowstone: Massive outcry erupts over well pads in wildlife areas

A proposed 136-well natural gas development in the beloved greater Yellowstone ecosystem south of Jackson, Wyo., has become the most controversial project ever contemplated within the boundaries of the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

The  plan, which our supporters recently helped protest, would allow  Plains Exploration and Production Company  to develop 136 natural gas wells in some of Bridger-Teton’s prime wildlife habitat  for moose, elk, pronghorn antelope and rare predators such as wolves, grizzly bears and lynx., The U.S. Forest Service recently issued a draft environmental analysis for the project which has been roundly criticized as harmful to air, water quality,  wildlife and recreational values.

The wells would be developed using the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing in an area designated as part of a vulnerable drinking water aquifer and in the headwaters of the Hoback River – a wild and scenic river.   Project air emissions are projected to degrade the wilderness airsheds over adjacent national parks and forests; well pads and roads would bisect one of the most important big game migration crossroads in the southern Yellowstone ecosystem.

In response, more than 60,000 people, organizations, politicians and government agencies submitted comments on the proposal—most of them raising concerns with the plan.

Thanks in part to those of you who responded to our WildAlert  letters and emails  poured into the Bridger-Teton Forest and set a new record for national forest public comments in Wyoming., This was a remarkable surge in public interest, as an earlier version of the project in 2007 attracted just 19,000 comments.

In its letter to the Forest Service, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department faulted the most recent report for using “outdated and/or obscure research. The authors should better justify their statements with proven science throughout the document.”

The Forest Service analysis of the project, also failed to consider the economic costs to hunting, fishing and recreation if Plains Exploration and Production Company is allowed to drill. The area contains prime moose habitat and supports mule deer, trophy elk and native cutthroat trout.
“Unlike any other state… our number two economic indicator is a category called: ‘Hunting, Angling, Recreation and Tourism.’ This category brought in over $2.5 billion in 2009 and is a renewable resource,” wrote Kim Floyd, executive secretary of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, in his comments to the Forest Service.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead echoed concerns about wildlife, insisting “baseline data must be established,” which could mean more years of study before any development can proceed.

Many of the public comments call for a buy-out of PXP’s leases. This strategy continues to work with great success in places like Montana’s North Fork near Glacier National Park. Citizens groups and private companies also came together to retire leases along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front.
The Forest Service cannot require a buy-out, but it can require a “do-over” of  its environmental analysis because the first draft lacked proven science and strategies for protecting this special piece of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

As Gov. Mead told the Forest Service, “…any decision must include a thoughtful approach to protecting as well as enriching Wyoming’s people, economy and environment.”


Photo by Diana Corsick