Showdown in the Great Divide

The Bush administration's rush to drill for natural gas on public lands in Wyoming without proper safeguards is jeopardizing a world-class hawk and eagle nesting area

  • Paul Tolmé
  • Oct 01, 2006

AFTER SCRAMBLING to the top of a 10-foot rock mound in south-central Wyoming's Great Divide Basin, biologist Erik Molvar examines the abandoned nest of a pair of ferruginous hawks, North America's largest hawk. The time is late August, and the birds have departed for the season, so he is in no danger of disturbing them. "From up here," Molvar says, "they don't have to worry about coyotes."

Nevertheless, this nest failed to produce any young last spring. Molvar suspects that a dirt road 100 feet away, leading to a failed natural gas well, gives people easy access to this once-remote site. Human disturbance causes adult hawks to flee. Left unattended, exposed eggs and chicks perish. Such nest failures, Molvar says, are increasingly common in the Great Divide Basin, an 11-million-acre expanse of sagebrush prairie, badlands and buttes where raptors have ruled the sky for millennia.

Natural gas drilling is reaching unprecedented levels in south-central Wyoming as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), responding to Bush administration directives to speed up oil and gas production on public lands, pushes increased energy exploration on the 4.5 million acres of the basin it oversees. As of this writing, roughly 3,000 wells have been drilled since 2000, and thousands more are proposed. "The Bush administration sees the domestic development of oil and gas as a priority," Lee Fuller, vice president for government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told The Washington Post recently. "Energy has as much right in the hierarchy of decision making about the use of these lands as any other uses. That's one of the principal shifts with the Bush administration."

Critics of rapid development of U.S. public lands contend that another policy shift is more worrisome: Bypassing Congress and the public, the Bush administration soon after taking office issued directives to BLM and other agencies requiring more justification for any decisions that restrain energy development. As a result, millions of acres are now subject to weakened federal development regulations, including lands that Congress nominated for wilderness protection.

The Great Divide Basin is a key example of how the administration has diluted federal protection of public wild land on behalf of the oil and gas industry. "The problem is not energy development,"says Kate Zimmerman, senior policy specialist in NWF's Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Center in Boulder, Colorado. "It is unleashing an unprecedented pace of development on one of the last great desert wildernesses in North America and doing it with a lack of safeguards for our natural heritage, from wildlife and grasslands to rivers and streams." 

Encompassing the eastern half of the famed Red Desert, the Great Divide is "a world-class raptor resource," according to the report Special Values of the Great Divide, written by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA), a nonprofit group headquartered in Laramie that works to protect wildlife habitat and roadless areas in Wyoming, western South Dakota and northern Colorado. Completed with funding from NWF and the Earth Friends Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Wyoming, the report says the area is "one of North America's last strongholds for nesting raptors where natural population densities can still be found." At least 15 raptor species nest there, ranging from burrowing owls (among the continent's smallest raptors) and bald eagles (the continent's largest) to ferruginous hawks, golden eagles, kestrels, merlins and great horned owls. Burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks are of concern because populations of both are declining. NWF hopes the report will spur policymakers and the public to pressure BLM--currently rewriting its resource management plan for future development in the Great Divide--to protect the area's wildlife and wilderness-quality lands. "The Great Divide deserves stronger protection," Zimmerman says.

In addition to raptors, the Great Divide Basin contains 234 sage grouse leks, or mating grounds, and Wyoming's only population of endangered black-footed ferrets--88 at last count. These ferrets feed almost entirely on white-tailed prairie dogs, a species driven from 95 percent of its historic range. Seven of the largest prairie dog complexes in the country exist here, along with some 100,000 pronghorn, 85,000 mule deer and 18,000 elk. The basin also features scenic, recreational and historic treasures, including the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and the Overland Trail used in the 19th century by westward-bound settlers. The region comprises 300,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands.

In this area, about four wells per square mile had been drilled as of summer 2005, and as this article went to press the administration was considering a proposal to double that number. Other proposed gas fields of 1,240, 2,000 and 1,250 wells were being considered. NWF and BCA have sued to prevent 385 wells from being drilled within potential federally designated wilderness.

In 2005, BLM issued a record 7,000 drilling permits nationwide and expects to top 9,000 this year--a frenzied pace that has oil companies importing drill rigs from China. More than 42 million acres of public land, most of it in the Rockies, are now leased for exploration, according to the Wilderness Society. Each well consists of a bulldozed area about 100 feet across, cylindrical metal tanks to store wastewater, a humming compressor station, pipes, gauges and other infrastructure. Eighteen-wheel tanker trucks, pickups with work crews, graders and backhoes rumble down the interlocking grid of gravel roads that has subdivided the Red Desert.

BLM field offices are so swamped with paperwork that the agency has adopted a controversial guest-worker program under which oil and gas companies pay the salaries of temporary employees hired to process permits. Environmental safeguards, when they exist (oil and gas exploration are exempted from provisions of the Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water and Clean Air Acts), are being skirted in the rush, according to a 2005 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The long-term environmental consequences for the West are unknown. "Natural gas has this reputation as the clean fossil fuel," says Gwen Lachelt, director of the nonprofit Oil and Gas Accountability Project in Durango, Colorado. "But if you look at the toll it is taking on the landscape, it is one of the filthiest." Intensive drilling cuts off migration and wintering grounds for elk, pronghorn and mule deer, causes sage grouse to abandon leks and decreases prairie dog reproduction, according to university and private studies. The proliferation of roads allows four-wheelers to penetrate deep into once-isolated public lands more easily, and workers have been caught illegally hunting pronghorn and sage grouse. 

Little, if any, peer-reviewed research has been published about gas drilling's impact on nesting raptors, according to James Bednarz, editor of the Journal of Raptor Research. "It's a real important issue now because there is pressure to develop petroleum resources everywhere," he says. Bednarz studied raptors in the late 1980s near Carlsbad, New Mexico, where oil and gas exploration was taking place. "My feeling is that it was definitely impacting the birds," he says.

Ferruginous hawks, named for their rusty iron (or ferrous) coloring, have a four-and-a-half-foot wingspan and can live 15 years. Arriving in the Great Divide Basin in spring after wintering in Mexico and the Southwest, they feed on ground squirrels, prairie dogs and desert cottontails. Eggs hatch from May to early June, and adults take turns hunting and guarding nests. They often nest on high buttes that overlook hunting grounds but also on tall objects in the prairie, closer to their prey.

When natural gas wells appeared, ferruginous hawks built nests atop some of the metal structures. Due to activity around the wells, these nests often fail to fledge young. "Some will fly when a pickup truck is a quarter mile away," says Bob Tigner, a retired BLM biologist who worked in the Great Divide. To ameliorate this loss, BLM implemented in the early 1980s an artificial-nesting-platform program. Wooden platforms on top of utility poles are being erected near wells--typically a quarter-mile away--where ferruginous hawks have previously nested. "We try to give them their distance," says Heath Cline, a BLM biologist who oversees the program from the Rawlins office. He says BLM imposes restrictions on well construction close to artificial nesting platforms during the breeding season.

Molvar, however, says the breeding-season restrictions apply only to the drilling of new wells in the quarter-mile buffer around the nests. Work crews can visit existing wells at any time, even during breeding season. "If the parents take off and don't come back in time, their whole reproductive year is lost," Molvar says.

If the federal government wants to protect raptors, critics of accelerated development contend, it would limit the density of wells (in parts of Wyoming, there are 16 wells per square mile), disallow any exploration during breeding season and require directional drilling, in which wells are drilled into the side of a gas field from farther away. "BLM is not going to shut down gas development because of wildlife values," Zimmerman says. Indeed, agency documents admit that 2,000 wells proposed for the Atlantic Rim section of the Great Divide would ruin hunting and wildlife viewing. "But we think they can conduct the drilling so it reduces the footprint," Zimmerman adds. "It can be done a lot better. Artificial nest sites to help some raptor species are only a start, given the intensity of development that's now being proposed."

In the process of rapid development, priceless landscapes and wildlife habitat are being handed over virtually free to an industry making record profits. A New York Times investigation revealed in 2005 that energy companies appear to have cheated the U.S. Treasury out of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalty payments from natural gas leases. Despite soaring gas prices, royalty payments in 2005 were below those in 2001, according to the Times, which partly blames lax oversight by the Interior Department. The newspaper also blames an antiquated royalty payment system that, if updated to reflect the market value of gas, would have generated an extra $700 million in royalties for public coffers last year.

This hemorrhaging of public dollars continues. Projections in the fiscal year 2007 federal budget indicate that the Interior Department plans to give up $7 billion in oil and gas royalties in the next five years. The department also plans to allow energy companies to drill about $65 billion worth of oil and natural gas on public lands without even paying royalties.

In some cases, BLM appears to be deliberately targeting potential wilderness. In 2004, the agency auctioned for development 39,000 acres in Colorado and 109,000 in Utah that Congress is eyeing for the National Wilderness Preservation System. Once roaded and drilled, areas no longer qualify for wilderness protection. "The Bush administration wants to tilt the scales in favor of careless oil and gas development," Zimmerman says. "But tapping into those resources doesn't have to be done that way. We can choose to drill smarter. We can choose to conserve wild places and wildlife. And the time to make those choices is now before we give away more than we can afford to lose."

Colorado resident Paul Tolme is a frequent contributor to National Wildlife. Read more of his environmental and wildlife stories at .

Global Warming Threat: Sagebrush Ecosystem in Jeopardy 
The nation's sagebrush ecosystem, already halved by development, could be reduced to a fraction of its current size in part by global warming, according to a new study by researchers from Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service. As the climate warms, scientists say, frost-sensitive plant species from the Southwest will move north and displace sagebrush vegetation, affecting sage grouse and other wildlife.

The study tested seven different climate scenarios. Only a few small areas in southern Wyoming, the northern edge of the Snake River plateau and small areas of Washington, Oregon and Nevada would survive under all scenarios. Under the hottest scenario, which researchers believe is one of the more accurate, sagebrush in the largest U.S. desert, the Great Basin--covering most of Nevada and western Utah as well as parts of Idaho and California--would lose about 80 percent of its 190,000 square miles.

"Increases in temperature due to global warming will be the driving force in these changes, along with less-predictable changes in the summer rainfall regime," says Ronald Neilson, a professor of botany at Oregon State and a Forest Service ecologist.

NWF in Action: New Protections for Wyoming Wildlife 
NWF's balanced plan for federal management of the public lands within the Great Divide, called the Western Heritage Alternative, would protect important wildlife habitats, including raptor areas, while allowing responsible development of oil and gas resources. NWF has filed several legal challenges to proposed coal bed methane projects that threaten crucial big-game winter ranges and sage grouse breeding grounds on the Great Divide's Atlantic Rim. With its Wyoming affiliate, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, NWF recently secured passage of state legislation creating a permanent trust account of up to $200 million to protect and restore wildlife habitats throughout Wyoming. To learn more about NWF in the Great Divide, go to

Perspective: Protecting a Mysterious, Sacred Place 
By Richard Baldes

Most people live in Wyoming because of the quality of life and outdoor opportunities. As a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, my roots in the state go back thousands of years, and the natural beauty and ties to the land are why I stay. No place else in America has such wide-open spaces and abundant wildlife--the priceless legacy of our public lands, which cover half the state. Try camping, fishing or hunting in states that don't have public lands, and it quickly becomes clear why those of us living in Wyoming have chosen this place.

Now the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is rewriting its blueprint for 3.5 million acres of public lands. The agency is revising its Great Divide Resource Management Plan and the spectacular wild country in Wyoming called Adobe Town is right in the middle of the action.

The first time I saw Adobe Town I couldn't believe my eyes. I've lived most of my life in Wyoming and for years I didn't know about this beautiful, fascinating place. Together with two former BLM employees from the Rawlins Office, my best friend and I traveled along the east side of the area and south of The Haystacks, a hideout where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kept fresh horses during their outlaw years. The roads were very muddy with standing water in the low places, and it soon became obvious that we were not going to reach Adobe Town from the east. We had to turn back.

We then drove all the way around the north end of the Haystacks. From the west, the spectacular cliffs of Adobe Town are hidden beyond the folds of the desert until you reach the very edge of the rim. Up to that point, you wonder if this legendary place exists at all. But taking in the magnificent view from a cliff-top perch, the experience is overwhelming. Light and shadow play across a beautiful landscape with spires, deep canyons and sandy draws. I had my camera ready, but I couldn't take my eyes off the magnificent scenery long enough to take a picture.

We saw chips (stone flakes) from flint and chert that Native people used to make tools thousands of years ago. It was moving for me to contemplate people sitting along the edge of the rim, chipping out an arrowhead and taking in the same view we were now enjoying. Back then, there would have been a lot of wildlife such as mule deer and pronghorn, sage grouse and rabbits. There still is today.

As we were leaving Adobe Town, we saw a place where Native people long ago built a dam out of large boulders on a small stream. Perhaps it held fish back then, in wetter times, or served as a place to get water, bathe and swim. A short distance away, stone flakes of all kinds were scattered across the sandy surface. The ancients must have spent a lot of time in this area, camping and hunting.

Adobe Town is situated in the lowest spot in Great Divide country and fossils from millions of years ago can be found here. We learned that the bones of ancient mammals--wooly rhinoceroses and giant ground sloths--can be found here. I look forward to seeing them one day.

Since that first trip to Adobe Town years ago, we have returned at least twice a year. I plan to spend as much time as possible with my friends and family there and in the surrounding area. Looking out across the landscape, it is obvious that we could spend the rest of our days exploring these wonderful sights. And we want to do it as soon as possible, for the BLM may soon allow oil and gas drilling to desecrate parts of Adobe Town.

That first day as we tried to reach Adobe Town, we saw hundreds of stakes with fluorescent orange and pink flagging surrounding the area. At least one helicopter was flying low overhead, probably doing seismic work. We could see a drilling rig far off in the distance, near the south end of Adobe Town. Despite its low oil and gas potential, this area is definitely being targeted by the industry.

Drilling for natural gas would ruin its wild character. We don't want it to change. We want to continue enjoying this landscape and show others so they can have the same experience.

Native people lived here in the past for obvious reasons--it is an outstanding place for camping and hunting. They surely were inspired and viewed the area as a special place the creator put there for worship and spiritual use.

Today, Native people continue to use spiritual sites in the Great Divide country for worship for more than 12,000 years. Sacred places like Adobe Town, as well as features elsewhere in Wyoming's Red Desert, such as Boar's Tusk and the Oregon Buttes, are still used for vision quests and spiritual enlightenment.

What bothers me most is the BLM's lack of concern about protecting Native American cultural sites and sacred places in this region. There are literally thousands of cultural sites in the Great Divide country. In fact, 794 of them are known to be eligible for designation on the National Register of Historic Places. Yet the BLM provides less protection for these sites than they do for historical sites only a century old. Furthermore, the agency has done little to involve tribal communities in the Great Divide planning process.

We realize the importance of oil and gas to the people of Wyoming and to our nation. We also realize the technology exists to extract natural resources more responsibly. Those of us who want to leave something for our grandchildren believe that there are places like Adobe Town that are too special to turn into another gas field.

The majority of people want more protection--not less--of special places. Yes, oil and gas development can occur in some areas; but it must occur in a responsible manner using the best technology that exists so that cultural and sacred sites, wildlife habitat and special places can be protected for the enjoyment of the public and for future generations. The people have spoken. The federal government needs to listen.

Richard Baldes is a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and a former biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He previously served on the National Wildlife Federation's volunteer board of directors.

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