Oil, gas and the grizzly

Energy exploration may push Yellowstone’s charismatic megafauna over the edge


A burly brown grizzly strides across a meadow in Yellowstone National Park in late spring, as the last light of day filters through the cloud cover. Elk and bison look up from their grazing. The bear, weak from hibernation, is focused on procuring easy meals, such as scavenged bison carcasses and the tiny white blossoms and corms of spring beauties that speck the forest edges.

A keystone species in several ecosystems, the grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis) was listed in 1975 as threatened in the lower 48 US states. In the last 120 years the bear’s range has been drastically reduced, leaving only a half-dozen disconnected populations in the contiguous United States. Fewer than 1,100 grizzlies of the estimated 50,000 once in the West survive. That it has the slowest reproductive rate of any animal in North America, save the musk ox, is part of the problem. But habitat infringement from a rapidly expanding network of roads on forest service land is what really threatens to bring this mega-mammal down.

Imposing creatures, adult male grizzly bears weigh 300 to 700 pounds and stand about 3.5 feet at the shoulder. Females range from 200 to 400 pounds. They need roughly 5,000 to 7,000 acres of roadless foraging habitat per bear, according to studies by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. “No other terrestrial mammal in North America has more demanding habitat requirements than the grizzly,” says Chuck Schwartz, leader of the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, made up of members from the US Geological Survey, the US Forest Service, and three state wildlife agencies.

This massive space requirement makes the bear especially vulnerable to habitat encroachment by humans. If bears have room to prosper, other species in the ecosystem will flourish as well. “The grizzly remains the most sensitive to roads of any species studied in the Northern Rockies,” says Margot Higgins, associate regional representative for the Sierra Club. “Thus, maintaining wildlands not only protects grizzlies but other wildlife and fish.”

Still, the grizzly is being considered for delisting because of increased population trends and pressure from the Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho state governments. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry threatens to make inroads into the wilderness habitat for bears and other wildlife.

In April, Congress defeated a proposal to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska, where the bear is not listed as endangered. Now, the oil and gas industry has set its sights on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest — part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem — and the Powder River Basin in Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming and Montana, part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Both are important grizzly habitat.

Grizzlies in these areas traverse adjoining wilderness lands, such as Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks, Bridger/Teton National Forest, and Bob Marshall Wilderness. These lands and nearby Bureau of Land Management, state, tribal, and private lands make up one of the largest intact temperate ecosystems in the world. However, because the different pieces of land have varying levels of protection, this network sustaining grizzlies and their wild neighbors is potentially unstable.

“Of all the federal lands … aside from lands that are set aside by Congress … something like over 90 percent are available for oil and gas development,” says Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold.

The West has a long history of companies turning a profit on public lands. Logging, ranching, mining, farming, and even urban development are pursuits that have often taken place on federal land or been made possible by government-subsidized water projects. In short, modern society in the West has been largely federally funded.

Despite the multifarious land uses that have shaped much of the region, remaining grizzly territory stands as a western Eden: the buffalo still roam and the deer and the antelope still play — or at least graze. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 has helped restore a natural balance visible to even inexperienced observers.

Roaming packs totaling more than 200 individuals help keep mule deer, elk, moose, and bison populations in check. Where prairie and mountains collide, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and American kestrels glide above windswept meadows populated by fat prairie dogs, pronghorn, and badgers, and sandhill cranes attend waterside nests. Bighorn sheep bound up mountains above forests where lynx and wolverines stalk prey and ravens raise a ruckus. Today copious quantities of large animals still act out their life dramas as they have for millennia.

Unfortunately for the bears, the oil and gas industry is road-intensive. Even preliminary exploration for fossil fuels requires the development of numerous roads to accommodate heavy machinery. Grizzly bears are five times more likely to die in an area with roads or trails, according to a 1991 study by Dave Mattson and Richard Knight of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. The researchers also determined that grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem tend to avoid habitat within 2.4 miles of a road.

The Bush administration’s reluctance to defend the Roadless Area Conservation rule — which would bar most new roadbuilding in federally owned roadless areas — may prove devastating for the grizzly. The rule, adopted by the Forest Service in January 2000, has been the subject of numerous industry lawsuits challenging the rule’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Until this year, the Bush administration refused to defend the EIS in court.

“The Bush administration basically invited the district court judge to issue an injunction against the policy that they said they thought was ill-advised, and that they disagreed with, and that they were looking at ways to mend or outright rescind,” says Honnold. “And they didn’t even appeal the injunction.”

In an apparent reversal in August, the administration finally filed a brief defending the rule on its merits in two consolidated cases in North Dakota. Whether this reversal will help the grizzlies farther west is yet to be seen.

In either event, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spokesperson Rem Hawes says a defeat of the roadless rule would not lead to a vast expansion in roads because the BLM puts stipulations on leasing permits, encouraging companies to use existing roads. “When a company comes to us for a permit to explore or drill, what we will do is work with their plan and with them to do the exploration or development in a way that’s consistent with the other activities and natural resources that are out there,” he said. “Our job is to make sure that the way they do it doesn’t impact other natural resources, like clean water, special status wildlife species, or other values like wilderness character.”

But Honnold still sees oil and gas exploration as a threat to bear habitat. “When you have oil and gas activity on these sensitive federal lands, it’s really essential that appropriate steps to protect the grizzly in its habitat are in place,” said Honnold. “In many cases it doesn’t mean that there should absolutely never be any kind of oil and gas activity. It’s a question of how that activity goes forward. The real key for grizzlies is avoiding contact with humans. Once you build a road, it leads to exponentially increased development and conflicts between bears and humans.”

Also, preliminary exploration for oil and gas often requires seismic blasting. Setting off explosives in 50-to-200-foot holes discourages bears from sticking around, as confirmed by biologists Lee Harding and John Nagy in their 1980 study that revealed noise pollution can cause grizzlies to abandon their dens.

Grizzly habitat is also threatened by the possibility of delisting, tentatively scheduled for 2003 to 2005. Though grizzly populations have increased, “delisting would be disastrous,” said Honnold. “It could be the difference between having bears in Yellowstone and Glacier and not. The protections afforded grizzlies by the Endangered Species Act are absolutely essential.”

Many biologists agree the bear population is not fully recovered and contend that recent population gains would quickly be reversed if the bears are delisted.

The US Geological Survey estimates the Rocky Mountain Front may hold five times as much gas and oil as ANWR. Even so, the Wilderness Society estimates the national forest roadless areas that make up much of the Front would produce enough oil to meet US demand for less than 40 minutes and enough natural gas to meet US demand for less than three days. “Even the most generous estimates of the natural gas potential in the area suggest that it would meet less than a month’s worth of the country’s gas needs,” said Sierra Club’s Higgins.

But the Bush administration has made the specter of extensive oil and gas development in this area more likely, favoring fossil fuel development over conservation or alternative forms of energy.

Vice President Cheney’s May 2001 energy plan illustrates this pattern. Two weeks before the plan was released, Cheney commented, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

Policy reflected this attitude in March, when the Senate rejected a Kerry-McCain proposal to boost automobile fuel efficiency from the current 24 to 36 miles per gallon by 2015. This move would have cut oil imports by about 1 million barrels per day, as well as reducing the incentive for drilling in domestic wilderness.

Nevertheless, since the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks, the administration seems to have taken political pressure to reduce oil imports from the Middle East as an invitation to drill domestically, rather than reduce oil consumption. “The bulk of petroleum comes from overseas; that’s not going to change,” said BLM’s Hawes. “But not using domestic sources and using foreign sources from volatile areas is not smart policy.”

Local support for oil and gas development in these states is as divided as the forest may become by roads. Some welcome any kind of economic development in these rural, depressed areas. Besides oil and gas development, these ecosystems are also at risk from rural sprawl, logging, gold mining, hunting, and off-road vehicles.

This spring, when the grizzly exited its den to begin hunting, it found its life in order, army cutworm moths where they’d been in years past, Yellowstone cutthroat trout swishing through the usual rivers. But what can the bear expect to find in subsequent springs? Will its habitat be crisscrossed with roads trampled by rumbling machinery, its favorite hunting spot populated with oil derricks instead of young elk calves? Current trends make this sad scenario possible. A storied way of animal life may crumble beneath the weight of competing human desires and complex land use politics. The outcome will inform future generations about our priorities as a society.

Erica Gies is senior editor at Environmental News Network. (www.enn.com).

Take Action: Write the Acting Supervisor of the BLM in Montana and ask her not to permit more energy leases on BLM lands in grizzly habitat. Sherry Barnett, Acting State Director, BLM, PO Box 36800, Billings, MT 59107-6800, (406) 895-5012. For more info, contact the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, 13 S. Willson, Suite 2, Bozeman, MT 59715, (406) 586-1593 or visit www.greateryellowstone.org.

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