Energy extraction companies get a bad rap from environmentalists and big media for damaging wildlife habitat. The allegations range from groundwater pollution to habitat fragmentation to increased traffic. These matters are heavily regulated by state health, natural resources and highway agencies, and the stakeholders continue to look for workable solutions.
What gets lost in all the noise is another side of the story—what energy companies do to benefit wildlife conservation. Though it’s not hard to find firsthand instances of wildlife thriving alongside drilling and mining operations, it may come as a surprise to learn just how proactive some companies are in supporting present-day wildlife management. Along with other media and hunting-industry folks, I got to observe on-the-ground examples of this during a spring visit to southwestern Pennsylvania hosted by the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Energy for Wildlife program.
Several factors have come together here to create a situation ripe for such an initiative. There’s a boom in natural gas extraction, as producers race to tap into the rich Marcellus Shale Formation that extends from western New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Jobs are plentiful, and a part of the “Rust Belt” is again prospering. Population density here is higher than in most other gas/oil-producing regions, but nonetheless it is a rabid hunting area with lots of public land, much of which lies within designated state game lands (SGL) controlled by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). Because energy companies are required by federal law to “reclaim” the land once their work is done, they have been replanting, but typically in acres of fescue and white pines, not especially friendly to wildlife. But now through coordinated efforts like Energy for Wildlife, companies are working with PGC to channel funding and manpower to projects truly beneficial to wildlife.
Although we spent our mornings doing what you would expect hunters to do during spring gobbler season, we also took time to visit sites where rehabbed coal mines and pipeline rights-of-way now support wildlife in greater numbers and greater variety than if the land had been left in a natural, successional state.
One such example can be found on SGL 245 where a wetlands mitigation project now occupies a valley formerly besieged by flash floods. Hard rains would often funnel torrential runoff that quickly jumped the banks of the small creek lining the bottomland. The flooding not only stripped away vegetation that provided cover and food for wildlife, it washed away productive topsoil and at times imperilled homes and farms downstream. Wildlife Conservation officers Doug Dunkerly and Travis Anderson explained that wetlands creation is a top PGC priority and so the agency saw great potential in acquiring the land in an exchange with Consol Energy. Part of a former coal mine tract, the valley was subject to subsidence, or settling of the ground where minerals are removed, a condition that promised to worsen effects of the flooding.
Consol stepped in with a plan to create a series of ponds ready to accommodate heavy runoff, thereby easing pressure on the native stream, checking erosion, and reducing the threat to landowners downstream. “Normally this [kind of project] would be prohibitively expensive, about $100,000 per acre,” said Dunkerly. “During recent rains the area acted as a big sponge, and you can see, it’s become a beautiful place that now holds waterfowl, songbirds and many other kinds of wildlife.”
There were no ducks or geese evident on that bright May afternoon, but one of my favorites, red-winged blackbirds, were out in force, and in the muddy bottom were tracks of deer, turkeys, coyotes and other critters.
An hour’s drive south, where the Appalachian topography gets rougher, our group caravanned partway up a steep ridge on SGL 223. Like many ridges and other places throughout the Marcellus Shale region, this one was crossed by a pipeline right-of-way. Such pipelines are necessary for bringing the natural gas to market, and there is no question they leave their mark on the landscape. But where some see these corridors cleared through forest and fields as scars, others see opportunities to benefit wildlife.
Led by Stephen Leiendecker, PGC lands management supervisor, we hiked to the crest of the ridge and saw the bright green right-of-way extending far to the northwest. In mid-May, the ground was carpeted in a lush growth of clover and other wildlife browse.
Leiendecker informed us that in fact we were standing in an old food plot site formerly planted in sunflowers, sorghum and corn. It had been a labor-intensive effort to provide what amounted to a seasonal feeding area, now replaced with a much more extensive, year-round habitat enhancement as a result of a cooperative effort between the PGC and the Williams Companies, builder of the pipeline. “When you’re ankle-deep in clover,” he said, gesturing to our feet and gazing out over the right-of-way, “you’re in an area wildlife will frequent.” The land manager called it a “linear herbaceous opening,” which is to say a food plot bordered by important edge cover that runs for many miles. In an area where much of the forest—both on public and private land—is too mature to offer substantial wildlife food and cover, it provides much-needed sustenance to dozens of species.
Williams not only supported the reseeding project, but has also funded the development of eight different seed mixes, working along with state universities to formulate blends compatible with different soil types and which are designed to provide year-round wildlife forage. Leiendecker said the mix used on SGL 223 included three types of clover, rye and little bluestem, and that such long-lived perennial plantings make the most efficient use of wildlife management dollars. On the walk back to the car I came across bare patches where turkeys had been dusting, and wished I had a spot like this closer to home.
Although there is never a one-size-fits-all solution to something as big as wildlife management, partnerships between private industry and government agencies are critical to maintaining America’s conservation success. As a self-supporting entity that receives no monies from state coffers, the PGC’s work with companies like Consol and Williams now plays a major role in managing wildlife in a state with nearly one-million licensed hunters. In addition to complying with legal requirements, there is perhaps an even bigger incentive to industry. “When energy companies show they are doing things right, then they will always be welcome to work here,” said Conservation Officer Doug Dunkerly.
More of this proactive thinking is needed, and hunters can be part of the process. Says NWTF’s Jay Jordan: “We say, ‘What can we do here? How can we tackle this in a way that will create needed habitat?’ Especially when done at the local level, hunters can help show companies and large landowners how to integrate wildlife management activities into their normal practices.”
Seeing the energy some companies are putting into creating and managing habitat gives me confidence that wildlife and hunting can have a bright future.