LARAMIE, Wyo. — Energy development in Wyoming is here to stay, and while it's inarguable that Wyoming's landscapes and wildlife are being impacted, measuring that impact is an area of science with many questions yet to be answered.
Jeff Beck, an assistant professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, is working to answer some of those questions.
As a restoration ecologist with a focus on rangelands, Beck is leading a slew of studies involving animals such as pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep and sage grouse and their behaviors in habitats disturbed by activities such as wind farms, bentonite mining and natural gas development. He came to UW in 2006 for a post-doctoral position and became a professor in 2007.
"Right now, the big picture is we have a lot of disturbance going on across the West, across our state especially. How do we understand how wildlife populations respond to that? Once we understand the impacts, we can start to develop mitigation steps that can be effective to try to offset impacts," Beck said.
At the Dunlap Ranch wind farm in the Shirley Basin, built by PacifiCorp, Beck is studying elk and pronghorn and the influence of development on crucial winter range. About 50 pronghorn were collared starting in 2010 and their movements tracked by GPS. Another group near Wolcott Junction was also collared to serve as a reference group, since the study started after construction had begun.
"If you're trying to isolate effects of some disturbance, it's really important to have some information about animals that aren't impacted," Beck tells the Laramie Boomerang (http://bit.ly/QjPxxl).
Beck will be looking at how man-made infrastructure influences the movement and survival rate of the animals. The collars fell off this spring and the results should be available next year. The elk study will last another three years and provide six years of data.
Chris Kirol worked on a master's degree project with Beck in which he examined what types of habitat in an oil and gas field are the most important for sage grouse survival and reproduction. He found that big areas of continuous sage brush were important, as was being able to see a well.
"If a sage grouse could see the well, they were less likely to go there or raise a brood there," he said.
He didn't find a relationship between nest survival and proximity to man-made infrastructure, which he expected.
"It's more a mechanism of avoidance. Maybe they're recognizing that these may be riskier habitats close to wells, and they're avoiding them," he said.
Beck said research is showing that avoidance is a common wildlife response to disturbance, but it's a harder behavior to observe because the impact is indirect. Direct impacts — such as habitat lost to roads or birds hit by wind turbines — are easy to measure. Indirect impacts, such as suitable habitat that is avoided for some reason, are harder to observe.
"There are mechanisms driving those we don't understand," Beck said.
As well, development changes the wildlife community — sage grouse move out and ravens move in, for example — and it impacts wildlife that choose to stay, such as pronghorn hanging out near an oil well.
"The question is, if they are there, are they impacted another way?" he said.
Another area of research for Beck is evaluating the effectiveness of habitat treatments. He's finding that sage brush ecosystems are more complex than previously thought, with different animal species responding in different ways to man-made disturbances designed to improve the habitat.
"What's mostly happened is the treatments have been done with the idea that the birds will benefit from it, but so far there hasn't been a lot of empirical evidence that supports that," he said.
Figuring out what kinds of treatments will help an ecosystem recover is a big step in mitigating the impact of any kind of development.
"I think it's important that you understand the impact, but also learn what we can do to offset the impact," Beck said. "At some time in the future, we'll be at the point where we can actually restore habitat."
While researchers have long looked at the impact of man-made disturbances on the natural landscape, the historical research is related to smaller-scale impacts from neighborhoods or logging projects.
"The scale of everything was so small before. We had gas fields and wind, but when you start building these really large developments, then you start to impact animals," he said.
With the help of technology such as global positioning and geographic information systems, the answers are becoming attainable, but the questions are plentiful.
"In our state, we have world-class wildlife habitat and world class wildlife populations. It's a matter of our quality of life. . We have an overlap of world-class energy resources. My job is pretty broad, but I recognize the need to harmonize the two — retain our world-class habitat and population resources, in conjunction with wise energy development," Beck said.