The northern reaches of a large Sublette County gas field could soon be bustling with drilling activity throughout the year if the Bureau of Land Management approves a 245-well plan now being reviewed.

The proposal for the Jonah Field would take five years to build out. It requests waiving seasonal restrictions on development that are designed to protect sage grouse and pronghorn, BLM documents show. In exchange, Jonah Energy would reduce the number of gas pads from 221 to 24.

Year-round drilling could harm noise-sensitive sage grouse, which are usually safeguarded from all surface-disturbing activities during breeding and nesting season between March 1 and July 15, according to a BLM environmental assessment.

Impacts to 2,337 acres of crucial winter range for pronghorn are anticipated as well, the agency’s planning document says. Jackson Hole’s small herd of migratory pronghorn are seasonal residents of the Upper Green River basin and typically spend winters near or within the borders of the Anticline and Jonah gas fields.

Issued by Jonah Energy and Linn Operating, the plan would add 245 directionally drilled wells on two dozen well pads located about 85 miles southeast of Jackson. To date 1,388 wells have been drilled in the Jonah Field project area, according to the BLM.

In all the BLM anticipates the revised plan would disturb 278 acres — significantly less than the 1,315 acres of disturbance permitted under a 2006 plan that approved 3,600 Jonah Field gas wells.

For sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, the benefits of the smaller development footprint would outweigh impacts from drilling throughout the year, said Jonah Energy regulatory director Paul Ulrich. Other types of seasonal restrictions — such as for nesting hawks — would be left intact, he said.

“We’re only asking for relief from sage grouse and pronghorn,” Ulrich said. “Certainly the proposed action provides a significant benefit for those two species by the reduction of human activity and surface disturbance, both short term and long term.”

Linda Baker, director of the Upper Green River Alliance, had the opposite view. Exchanging fewer well pads for a waiver on seasonal restrictions would be a bad deal for the sagebrush steppe and its inhabitants, she said.

“This is a dangerous precedent at a time when we’re seeing increased levels of sagebrush mortality in that region because of warming trends,” Baker said. “Habitat is getting a double whammy here.

“They’ve pretty much nuked three-quarters of [the Jonah Field] and now they’re looking at waiving restrictions in the last quarter,” she said.

Gas companies drilling the nearby Pinedale Anticline, Baker said, received a waiver on seasonal restrictions in 2008. The longtime energy industry watchdog said she feared the precedent would “spill over” to other gas fields in Wyoming, such as the 141,000-acre Normally Pressured Lance, or NPL, project that’s been proposed south of the Jonah Field.

“I don’t know why any operator would look at this second waiver of a seasonal restriction and not cry foul,” Baker said. “Why can’t we do it if they can do it?”

Jonah Energy also owns the NPL leases, slated for 3,500 wells.

A 15-day comment period ends Feb. 22. Email blm_wy_jonahyrd@blm.gov with “Jonah YRD Project Area Comment” in the subject line.

If the plan is OK’d, drilling would begin this spring, Ulrich said.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or environmental@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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