New Research Details Impact of Energy Development on Deer Habitat Use

By University of Wyoming

UW researcher Samantha Dwinnell releases a doe mule deer in western Wyoming. (Benjamin Kraushaar Photo)

For every acre of mule deer habitat taken by roads, well pads and other oil and gas development infrastructure in Wyoming’s Green River Basin, an average of 4.6 other acres of available forage is lost, according to new research by University of Wyoming scientists.

That’s because deer avoid areas close to such human disturbance, even when there’s quality forage in those areas, says the research published in the journal Ecological Applications.

“Large herbivores have adapted to the naturally occurring constraints of their foodscape, but certain levels of human disturbance appear to prompt behaviors across multiple scales that, in turn, result in exaggerated losses of forage,” the scientists wrote. “Recognizing the cumulative losses of forage is key to providing wildlife managers and industry with realistic expectations of population effects that are likely to ensue on winter ranges where energy development occurs. Such knowledge can guide the evaluation of trade-offs between energy development and the performance and abundance of large herbivore populations.”

The new findings help explain why previous research showed a 36 percent decline in the mule deer population during 15 years of energy development on the Pinedale Anticline in western Wyoming’s Sublette County. While those previous studies correlated energy development with declining deer numbers, the new research specifically documented changes in the foraging behavior of deer in relation to oil and gas activity.

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