OUT Sunday Column June 21, 2009

Mule deer group to repair habitat disturbed by energy industry

The Colorado Mule Deer Association is helping take a bite out of energy development.

The bite, in this case, is the habitat changes wreaked when a company decides to put a well pad smack in the middle of wildlife habitat.

Which is, like, just about anywhere in western Colorado.

Habitat mitigation is one way to offset that lost native habitat, but in most cases the animals were using the original spot because there weren’t any options.

The Mule Deer Association plans to help energy companies and the Division of Wildlife in their habitat replacement efforts by purchasing a power mulcher to tear down overgrown stands of oak and pinyon/juniper. When done properly, a mulcher can create excellent deer, elk and wild turkey habitat in places previously not being used. 

Tom Kenyon, vice chair of the Grand Junction chapter of the Colorado Mule Deer Association, said it has planned for the mulcher to be purchased through a multiple partnership among the Mule Deer Association and other conservation groups, including the Rocky Mountain Elk
Foundation, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the energy company Williams.

“We’ve sold the Governor’s (deer) Tag at our annual banquet for several years and we have something like $85,000 in that account,” said Kenyon, who is a member of the Grand Junction city council. “We are looking to work with Williams and several others to put together a block of money to buy a track hoe to do habitat work.”

The track hoe will be equipped with a power mulcher, similar to the more-familiar hydro-ax used to shred brush and trees into anchovie-sized mulch.

A mulcher recently was put through a test demonstration to open some dense oak brush stands on public lands just south of Rulison, where Williams is punching some natural gas wells. The development of these wells destroys the native habitat, but Williams wildlife manager Rob Raley plans to have something waiting when the drilling is finished and the animals return.

“The place will be changed when they get here but they’ll find it better in some spots,” he said.

“So much of these oak stands were unusable because not even a deer could move through them. Now, these openings are like natural openings and will provide good fawning and (elk) calving areas.”

The Mule Deer Association alone doesn’t have enough money top purchase the track hoe and mulcher, which normally cost close to a half-million dollars combined. However, the slumping economy makes this a good time to buy a used machine.

“We can get a track hoe for around $100,000 and then we can put a new (mulcher) head on it,” Kenyon said. “That really makes it a good deal for everyone.”

The track hoe will be given to the Division of Wildlife for future habitat work, including some needed clearing on the Little Hills Research Station along Piceance Creek.

“Our idea at the Mule Deer Association is to donate the money and have it matched by other groups in order to buy the machine,” Kenyon said. “Then, we’d donate the machine to the DOW and the DOW would have the operator and the schedule for the machine.”

In addition to creating islands of open space in dense brush, the track hoe also may save energy companies from bulldozing well pads, Kenyon said.

“The companies can go in with the machine and grind off the top of the well pads instead of digging using a D-8 (bulldozer) to scrape everything down to bare soil,” he said. “This leaves the roots in the ground and prevents erosion. Then, when the companies go back in to rehab the area, they’ll have something there to start with instead of working with bare ground.”

Will it work? Energy companies, like every other business, always are looking for ways to cut their costs while achieving their business goals.

If the mulcher can reduce both production costs and rehabilitation costs, and also provide some way to give the habitat a much-needed head-start back to health, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to object. 

Partnerships such as these are good for everyone, said Williams spokesperson Susan Alvillar.

“The DOW and the BLM will be able to do some really good things they might not have been able to afford otherwise,” she said. “And partnering with the sportsmen groups is important to us because many of our employees are hunters.”

Kenyon reported the Grand Junction chapter of the Colorado Mule Deer Association being named the official state chapter, Kenyon said.


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