Coal in the Powder River Basin

The Powder River Basin in the Red Desert stretches for more than 14 million acres from the peaks of Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains to the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana.

It provides premier habitat for elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, wild turkeys, and the threatened greater sage-grouse in places like Otter Creek—as well as exceptional warm water fishing in the Tongue River.

This amazing wildlife haven is also the source of more than 40 percent of the nation's coal, making it the number one coal-producing region in the United States.

The massive energy development in the region contributes more than 14 percent of the total U.S. carbon pollution, disturbs the landscape, pollutes the air, and endangers fish and wildlife such as the threatened greater sage-grouse. An increasing amount of dirty coal that is strip-mined in the Powder River Basin is also being shipped overseas and burned in Chinese coal plants.

Accelerated Energy Development Putting Wildlife at Risk

Oil and gas companies have targeted the Powder River Basin for even more energy development, mainly coal bed methane drilling, a form of coal mining that requires large amounts of water and draws down the water table.

If allowed to move forward, the operation—already approved by the federal Bureau of Land Management—will bring an estimated:

It would also pump millions of gallons of water from the aquifer in an already arid landscape, causing alarm for many local ranchers.

The National Wildlife Federation is working with wildlife enthusiasts, sportsmen, and Tribal Nations to make sure current and future energy development in the Powder River Basin is done as safely and responsibly as possible, to reduce our impact on the amazing wildlife and habitat in the area.

Wildlife at Risk from Energy Development

The Bureau of Land Management's plan for energy development in the Powder River Basin is wholly inadequate for the protection and maintenance of fish and wildlife habitat, and will have a substantial impact on the future of hunting and fishing in the region.


The extensive pipelines and infrastructure that come with coal bed methane development are disrupting migration routes that sage-grouse use to reach Wyoming and Colorado. A sharp decline in sage-grouse populations has finally forced the BLM’s office in Buffalo, Wyoming, to significantly revise its land-use plan and impose interim restrictions on some methane drilling in order to conserve sage-grouse habitat.

Unfortunately, with much of the land already leased and being drilled, the success of this after-the-fact conservation effort is uncertain.

With careful planning that incorporates better science on managing sage-grouse populations as well as other wildlife and fisheries resources and energy development, the Powder River country in Montana can avoid the wildlife losses experienced in Wyoming.

Mule Deer

The Powder River Basin boasts a mule deer population of more than 36,000 and welcomes nearly 11,000 hunters annually. In Montana, the Powder River Basin ranks first for mule deer hunting among the state's top four mule deer areas. Coal bed methane drilling threatens the Montana part of the Basin's mule deer habitat and would make maintaining a healthy mule deer population impossible.

Working With Tribes to Fight Reckless Development

National Wildlife Federation works with Tribal members from across the Northern Plains who have important and long-standing historical and cultural ties to the Powder River Basin landscape.

Protecting Otter Creek from Coal Exports

There is a special place in Montana where few have been but where life is abundant. Where bald eagles soar over migrating elk, mule deer, and pronghorn. Where mountain lions and black bears roam over tens of thousands of acres, through ponderosa pine forests and sagebrush prairies that stretch as far as the eye can see.

This place is the Otter Creek valley, located in the heart of Powder River Basin, a region in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana.

Proposed Massive Coal Mine Would Put Wildlife at Risk

But with over 40 percent of U.S. coal production occurring in the region, wildlife habitat is under increasing stress from development. The valley has been threatened by a proposal to develop one of the largest coal mines in the nation, which would forever destroy this pristine landscape and the habitat it provides for wildlife.

In 2010, the Montana State Land Board leased its half of the minerals in the Otter Creek Valley to Arch Coal, Inc., the second largest U.S. coal mining company. Arch paid $160 million to lease 18,000 Otter Creek acres containing 1.4 billion tons of coal from the State of Montana and Great Northern Properties. The State of Montana received around 15 cents per ton of coal, the minimum rate available. Much of this coal is probably destined for export to Asia. In 2016 Arch Coal decided to suspend their plans for the mine.

Working on the Ground to Fight the Mine

Coal demand in the United States is declining at a rapid pace due to less expensive natural gas, wind and solar energy and increased energy efficiency. The National Wildlife Federation works with our allies—including tribes, ranchers, conservation groups, and hunters—to protect Otter Creek. We've mobilized grassroots efforts on the ground to fight against the mining of this sacred place and the destruction of the communities and wildlife that call it home. The National Wildlife Federation is also working to prevent the export of Powder River Basin coal through proposed coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

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Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

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