Coal and the Powder River Basin

Proghorn herd

The Powder River Basin 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 than14 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 which requires large amounts of water and draws down the water table.

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

  • 66,000 new wells in Wyoming and Montana (covering an area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut);
  • 27,000 miles of roads;
  • 53,000 miles of pipelines and overhead electrical lines;

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 in the Powder River Basin

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.


Male sage grouse

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, WY 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.

  • We partnered with the Northern Cheyenne Environmental Protection Department to conduct energy efficiency and renewable energy trainings for community members and make tribal buildings more energy efficient.

  • We are also working partners to create a Carbon Trust which would provide economic incentives for the Tribe to keep its coal in the ground and preserve its pristine habitat of grass covered plains and rolling hills.

  • We hosted a summit in Billings, MT, to unite regional landowners and other interested parties in a coalition to protect the Powder River Basin and its wildlife from growing industrialization. More than 150 participants attended the summit, including ranchers, conservationists, elected officials and representatives from seven Native American tribes. Stakeholders developed a strategy for drawing national attention to the region and an action plan to promote responsible energy development.

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