Jackson Hole pronghorn’s critical winter range doubles as one of the largest natural gas fields in the U.S. But new research shows that the native tawny-and-white residents are avoiding, and even abandoning, the altered landscape.
That’s a conclusion emerging from an ecological examination of how hundreds of radio-collared pronghorn responded to the Pinedale Anticline field being built up and drilled over the past decade and a half. Findings showed that pronghorn both avoided wells by keeping their distance and abandoned the area entirely.
Those behavioral responses debunk a common presumption that the species adapts readily to gas field activity, putting pronghorn in a similar camp as their sagebrush-dwelling and development-averse counterparts: mule deer and sage grouse.
“There is a common perception that pronghorn are not affected by development, and that may be in large part because they are so mobile and move around so much,” Western Ecosystems Technology research biologist Hall Sawyer said. “I think what we showed with this work is that because of that mobility, it’s really difficult to detect behavioral changes or effects.”
“We were fortunate enough here to have 15 years of data from GPS collars,” he said, “and an opportunity to reveal that there are indeed behavioral effects.”
Those effects are laid out in a peer-reviewed article Sawyer authored that’s published in a recent edition of Conservation Science and Practice. Collaborators and co-authors include past and current Wildlife Conservation Society staffers Jon Beckmann, Renee Seidler and Joel Berger.
The research team kept tabs on 29 pronghorn within the Anticline as far back as 1999 and 2000, before the vast sagebrush-covered plateau south of Pinedale was cut up by roads, pipelines and the gas pads where they end. The biologists stayed on it, tracking another 142 pronghorn by fitting them with GPS collars over a dozen years while the field was being developed.
“Between 2005 and 2017 pronghorn avoidance of well pads increased by [a quarter mile] and their overall displacement from well pads increased by [a half-mile],” Sawyer wrote in the study. “Concurrently, the amount of time pronghorn spent in our [220-square-mile] study area declined by 22%, and the proportion of pronghorn leaving the study area increased by 57%.”
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