SUBLETTE COUNTY – With bad weather preventing many of the county’s representatives from making the trip to Cheyenne on Dec. 13, the Pinedale Anticline Project Office’s board meeting instead aired on Zoom.
That might have been the good news of the day. Wildlife monitoring updates showed declines for certain species that are watched on the Pinedale Anticline, such as the Sublette Mule Deer Herd, on the Anticline, and greater sage-grouse, everywhere.
The PAPO is a collaboration of county, state and federal agencies formed under the Pinedale Anticline’s 2008 Record of Decision (ROD) requirements to monitor and mitigate negative trends for wildlife, winter ozone, air quality and habitat.
State and regional officials present on Dec. 13 included chair Angi Bruce from Wyoming Game and Fish, BLM High Desert District Manager Jason Gay, Chris Wichmann for Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Nancy Vehr for Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and Jennifer Fleuret for Wyoming BLM.
A local team works through the PAPO and its funding mechanism to monitor and mitigate possible negative effects of the area’s concentrated oil and gas development.
On Dec. 13, Sublette County Commissioner Sam White was welcomed to his first meeting after former commissioner Joel Bousman’s many years.
White said of the folders Bousman handed him for the transition – “I know Joel’s been instrumental in this. It’s like drinking water from a fire hose.”
Mule deer trigger
The Sublette Mule Deer Herd’s population in the Anticline’s winter range is an annual concern magnified this year, when comparing the 2008 baseline of 2,856 to February infrared flights showing only 1,787 animals present – a 37-percent decline, according to biologists.
The Sublette Mule Deer Herd has an estimated total population of 21,802 animals, down 10 percent from the 2008 baseline of 24,165 animals. Working the numbers shows the Anticline mule deer declined a net 17-percent decline, triggering the PAPO’s wildlife mitigation matrix.
As for greater sage-grouse, they are suffered on and off the Anticline, biologists reported, with the 2022 number of peak males attending leks in the combined development area down 34 percent from 2021. However, the combined reference areas off the Anticline also dropped 25 percent from last year. With the reference area and development areas both in decline, though, the birds’ “thresholds were not surpassed.”
Mule deer mitigation
Game and Fish biologists Ashleigh Rhea and Brandon Scurlock reviewed PAPO habitat treatments and projects outlined but not evaluated in the annual update.
The Dec. 13 update said reduced Sublette mule deer populations “are partially attributed to surface disturbances and over-winter activities associated with energy development on the Pinedale Anticline Project Area natural gas field.”
A mild winter might account for fewer mule deer coming to winter on the Anticline, the update says.
“Decades of habitat conversion and fragmentation” decrease forest and sagebrush productivity of crucial seasonal ranges and seasonal migrations encounter more barriers, it says, so the PAPO is focused on wildlife-friendly fence installation, shrub plantings, sagebrush treatments, monitoring past projects and other projects.
Wichmann asked what mule deer mitigation steps come next with the threshold trigger; Rhea said they will continue with already-planned projects.
The PAPO budget as of Dec. 13 showed most monitoring projects are paid up with mitigation projects “in progress” such as game fence extensions and steel-jack fence to protect aspens and riparian habitat in the Sublette Mule Deer Migration Corridor.
The team plans to complete its NEPA environmental analysis process for the 2021-funded North Pinedale Wildlife Habitat Plan to use mechanical, chemical and prescribed burn treatments in big mountain sagebrush habitat and the mule deer migration corridor, added BLM biologist Mark Thonoff.
Bruce brought up the PAPO board’s twice-yearly meetings and asked if directors would prefer to meet only once a year, in May in Pinedale. They voted unanimously to meet then in Pinedale and call a special meeting for anything pressing.
The new PAPO project coordinator is BLM Pinedale Field Office’s Tracy Hoover, who took over the budget and books with the “sunsetting” of its companion Jonah Interagency Office, which ran out of money.
Hoover reported that the PAPO received 2022 spud fees for 66 wells totaling $495,000. PureWest, formerly Ultra, is the majority owner in the Anticline. She was asked to update 2023 agency salaries – $90,000 to DEQ, $75,000 to Wyoming Department of Ag, $75,000 to Game and Fish and $75,000 to the BLM.
At the meeting, the PAPO checkbook balance was more than $3.77 million with just over $1.37 million spoken for as unpaid balances on open projects, and with the additional spud fees, the projected amount available for future years is $2.9 million, according to budget sheets.
The board also discussed how to phase out programs, perhaps pygmy rabbit and prairie dog monitoring. “Adaptive management” would allow “the BLM flexibility to curtail monitoring where they’re not getting any information,” Gay told the board.
Vehr and Bruce questioned the process, which Gay said would start with a PAPO team recommendation to a field manager and then through a public comment process.
“If the recommendation is to curtail, it would be done within the ROD parameters and the PAPO process,” Gay said. “We would report changes back to the board.”
“You’re really referring to the monitoring component,” Bruce said, referring to the upcoming end of several multi-year contracts.
Rhea requested $80,000, up from the “usual” $65,000 for ambient sound level monitoring, which is required in the Anticline’s record of decision, Scurlock added. She proposed having a less expensive SONY recording system set up by Western Bioacoustics’ expensive equipment around sage-grouse leks to compare and analyze both systems’ results. It was moved and approved.
The Anticline’s ambient sound study is “groundbreaking and only done here,” Rhea said. “In this case we need to learn from ourselves and not others.”
New data system
PureWest’s Jasmine Allison and Kelly Bott attended via Zoom and heard Gay’s announcement the BLM will switch from the Anticline’s unique Pinedale Anticline Data Management System (PADMS) to its new Surface Disturbance Analysis and Reclamation Tracking Tool (SDARTT).
PADMS is already communicating operators’ data to SDARTT, he said.
PADMS is run through USGS and that funding will “return to the general pot.” Hoover said.
Vehr moved to make the transition and adjust the 2023 budget accordingly; it was passed.
“I have a question about PADMS,” Allison said. “We haven’t been notified – we just heard about this. It wouldn’t accept our data this year.”
Gay said that would be “a separate issue. The reason you haven’t heard of it before is because the board needed to approve it and then we will roll out communication with operators.”