New Report on the Destructive Impacts of Energy Development on Wildlife

Credit: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

A new study commissioned by NRDC and the National Wildlife Federation finds that energy extraction (e.g., coal mining and oil and gas development) in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming is destroying the habitat of some of the West's most beloved wildlife - including mule deer, pronghorn, elk, and greater sage-grouse. Even we were shocked when we saw the extent of the development (pictured below), which leaves little space for wildlife to survive, let alone thrive.

Coalbed Methane: In Wyoming, over 11,000 producing gas wells are shown, along with more than 10,000 non-producing and abandoned wells. Coalbed methane has undergone a boom-and-bust cycle, but extensive production infrastructure remains in place.
Coal: The Powder River Basin is a major U.S. coal producing area and one of the world's largest deposits of coal, including the nation's largest surface mine: Black Thunder in Campbell County, Wyoming.


To add insult to injury, the degradation and destruction of wildlife habitat threatens the continued viability of these species in the coming decades as well as the $7 billion tourism and hunting industries in the two states. The study finds that declining population trends and hunting opportunities for mule deer, pronghorn, and the greater sage-grouse are associated with their close proximity to energy projects. Other findings include:

  • Half of the mule deer units in the study are in poor health; those herd units are located on land with extensive energy development, including natural gas wells and large coal strip mines.
  • The only healthy mule deer unit is in the part of the Black Hills of Wyoming with no energy development.
  • Active sage-grouse leks ("strutting grounds" used for mating) are located twice as far from coal bed natural gas wells and 1.5 times as far from power lines as inactive leks.

Declines in wildlife habitat have a direct impact on hunting and the revenue it contributes to state economies. Limited hunting seasons mean fewer available licenses and fewer hunting opportunities for individuals as well as less revenue for the states from the money spent by hunters on equipment, travel, food, lodging, licenses, and other expenses.

This isn't just bad news for me as a hunter - less revenue from hunting also affects important non-game conservation programs because many state wildlife agencies are still largely funded by the fees and taxes paid by hunters and anglers (notwithstanding creative solutions to diversify the funding base like the one proposed by my colleague Zack Strong for a new "Wolf Stamp").

If affected wildlife species are to rebound to healthy levels, we need to implement greater land management reforms, and state and federal governments must increase their commitment to eliminate negative impacts to wildlife. Specific recommendations in the report include increasing investments in wildlife recovery efforts and enacting legislation that benefits wildlife and their habitats.

Our region is home to unique wildlife habitat that should be preserved and protected. Wildlife can't thrive in areas dominated by intensive energy development projects for oil, natural gas, and coal. We need to do more to protect our incredible wildlife habitat - or we risk losing part of the American West forever.

The report is available online at:


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