Assessment of Wildlife Vulnerability to Energy Development
Photo of drill rigs and well pads in the Jonah natural gas field Sublette County, Wyoming

Energy development in Southwest Wyoming has the potential to disrupt wildlife migrations and degrade habitat quality.

 

Project Partners

Wyoming Game and Fish

Department University of Wyoming

The Nature Conservancy

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Why Do We Need to Know Which Species are Most Vulnerable?

Over 150 wildlife species in southwest Wyoming are listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD). Southwest Wyoming has abundant energy resources, but energy resource development is accompanied by substantial disturbance, both through the extraction process itself and supporting infrastructure (well pads, roads, storage tanks, pipelines). This disturbance can impact wildlife species in many ways, including habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, obstruction of migration routes, and reduced water quality and quantity, to name a few. Given the current environment of rapid energy development, it is important to assess the vulnerability of these wildlife species to energy development and to prioritize the management, monitoring, and research needs of Wyoming‘s numerous SGCN.

Key Findings

  • Our results demonstrate a clear ranking of species exposure to potential energy development. Species with higher exposure to development should receive increased scrutiny when assessing conservation priorities.
  • The majority of species in our study showed sufficiently low exposure to current and future energy development that range-wide impacts are not likely.
  • Species restricted to low and mid-elevation basin shrublands and grasslands showed higher exposure.
  • We predict that several species will exhibit accelerated exposure in the future (e.g., black-footed ferret; pygmy rabbit; Wyoming pocket gopher).
  • Althouh exposure to petroleum infrastructure will be much larger than to wind turbines, petroleum and wind-energy footprints are largely non-overlapping, resulting in spatially extensive disturbance from the combination of the two types of energy development.

Study Objectives

  • Focus conservation attention on the most vulnerable species before they become imperiled
  • Develop range maps and distribution models for Wyoming’s terrestrial vertebrate SGCN.
  • Develop maps of current and potential future energy development (oil, gas and wind-power) across Wyoming.
  • Assess the potential exposure of each Wyoming’s terrestrial vertebrate SGCN to energy development.
  • Assign preliminary risk ranks for species based on the relationship between their estimated distributions and current energy footprints.
  • Refine initial ranking based on an assessment of species’ biological sensitivity to energy development.
Map showing overlap of oil, gas, and wind development with distribution for 6 species of greatest conservation need for the state of Wyoming.

Wyoming distribution (red shading) maps for A), fisher (B), Great Plains toad (C), pygmy rabbit (D), black-footed ferret (E), and Wyoming pocket gopher (F) superimposed on energy development projections (black for oil and gas and blue for wind).

How was Wildlife Vulnerability to Energy Development Determined?

We compiled a dataset of approximately 260,000 individual records for 159 species. From these data, we created distribution models that identified areas where species are most likely to occur based on available observations and environmental data layers. A lack of adequate occurrence data affected model quality for numerous species, generally small mammals and reptiles (particularly lizards). Game species and federally designated endangered species had more documented occurrences than other non-game species.

We used built-out maps of energy development to generate energy footprints for Wyoming. Then, we assigned values of maximal disturbance at well and turbine sites and these values lessened to a negligible amount as distance increased to 1 km from the disturbance site. We applied this function to well locations in our build-out maps to create a continuous, statewide surface with values ranging from one (complete exposure at a well or turbine location) to zero (negligible exposure when far from the nearest well or turbine). We calculated an index of exposure for each species based on this exposure surface and habitat suitability from species distribution models.

 

Photo of dirt road to well pad in southwest Wyoming
Photo of black-footed ferret
Photo of wind turbines

Roads and well pads can destroy and fragment habitat necessary to terrestrial vertebrate species.

Black-footed ferrets have limited distribution in Wyoming and therefore may be vulnerable to habitat loss and disturbance from energy development.

Wind turbine construction and operation can lead to habitat loss and fragmentation as well as soil disturbance. Bats and birds may be injured or killed by collisions with towers and turbine blades and by turbulence and air pressure changes.