Oil and gas boom a bust for hunters along Colorado-Wyoming border

A family of deer in Colorado. (Photo by Troy Hooper)

A corner of northwest Colorado where oil drilling is booming is becoming a bust for hunters.

In 1990, there were more than 4,500 mule deer living in a unit near the state border with Wyoming, and in 2009 there were just a little more than 1,500 in that same unit, according to Steve Torbit, who at the end of this week will retire as the National Wildlife Federation’s executive director for the region.

The loss of two thirds of the game unit’s population during that span triggered a dramatic drop in the number of mule deer harvested, from 839 in 1989 to 48 in 2008, Torbit told the Colorado Independent.

But while hunting is down, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are up like never before.

Since the summer of 2010, more than 85 drilling permits have been approved in Moffat County and more than a dozen more are pending, according to Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission records. There are about 50 energy companies tapping into the Niobrara formation, where oil and gas are buried several thousand feet below the high plains that straddle the Colorado and Wyoming borders.

A recent study that for the first time reviewed population trends, hunter-harvest reports and licenses sales from Colorado and Wyoming over the last 30 years concluded that drilling and other human activities are killing and chasing off deer and pronghorn antelope in the two states. The animals are losing critical habitat they have historically relied on to survive phenomenons of drought, weather and disease. The result has been a slow, inexorable decline in populations of both species, the study found.

“One of the things we are concerned about is we see a lot of development that characterizes itself as good for jobs and good for the economy, but never is there a conversation about the direct impact it has on wildlife, nor is there a conversation about how it impacts funding for agencies like the Colorado Division of Wildlife,” said Torbit, noting that fewer permits for the area can be sold to hunters.

“The little towns get hurt too. There aren’t as many hunters there to buy gas, to buy groceries, to stay in hotels and do all those things that hunters do to help the economies of these little towns,” he said.

Usually deer and pronghorn recover quickly to herd declines brought on by drought, fire and natural disasters. During a drought in the 1980s, big-game populations in Yellowstone National Park suffered severe declines when it lost habitat to the largest fire in the park’s recorded history. But within two years, the game populations sprung back to life thanks to more moisture and improved habitat.

Environmentalists and hunters are calling on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to more closely consider how oil and gas drilling, wind farms, agricultural practices and other human encroachments can permanently scar wild landscapes and the creatures that have traditionally flourished in them.

Forty years ago, biologists and wildlife managers say, hunters could see hundreds of sage grouse in a single day. But these days, fossil fuel development in the West has wiped out much of their range and put the North American birds, which numbered 16 million a century ago, on the brink of extinction.

“As a Westerner, biologist and hunter, I don’t want to see that same decline occur in our mule deer and pronghorn,” Torbit said.

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.