JACKSON — Relationships changed and unraveled. Promises proved empty. Attempts to massage scientific data bubbled up. Those elements all factored into the failure to develop a pronghorn-friendly gas field where Jackson Hole’s migratory animals winter, according to a scientific paper.
Scientists, who were bankrolled by industry with a $2 million tax-deductible donation to research the Pinedale Anticline’s pronghorn, say efforts to cooperatively conserve the population went awry because of power imbalances, changing relationships with and between agencies and industry, and a lack of transparency. The collaboration between the industry and conservation biologists largely fell apart a decade ago. Today the result is that pronghorn are increasingly avoiding infrastructure within and abandoning the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s largest natural gas field.
That’s a narrative presented by Wildlife Conservation Society social scientists and biologists Heidi Kretser, Jon Beckmann and Joel Berger, who detailed a retrospective account of a failed attempt at collaboration in a 2018 edition of the Journal of Environmental Management.
“When we started working in the Upper Green River Basin on energy-related effects, we noticed a number of distinctions between what industry had promised, and what really occurred,” Berger said in an interview. “Shell, in particular, was very clear in arguing that, based on our scientific results, they would only develop in a way that would not be negative to pronghorn. That proved very far from the truth.”
For Beckmann a turning point was when Anticline developers Ultra, Shell and Questar started pushing back on what his fellow researchers were finding a couple of years into the industrialization of the vast sagebrush-covered mesa south of Pinedale.
“There was an attempt to alter some of the language in the reports,” Beckmann said. “It was definitely the first time that I recognized that there was going to be some contention here with language and statements and data and how data were being presented.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society scientists’ paper, which is written mostly as a narrative, suggests that missions of the for-profit corporations involved complicated negotiations and relations.
“Although the groups initially convened with a stated conservation motivation, the majority of the players had to balance multiple and often competing mandates such as economic, risk management and conservation,” the researchers wrote. “During this transition period with new individuals at the table, conservation seemed to be only a secondary or possibly tertiary motivation driving the participation.”
The planning process leading up to the drilling of the Anticline was billed as innovative, partly because the gas field development was to be adaptively managed in a way that resulted in industry-funded conservation if a population of a species was struggling. With pronghorn, for instance, a 15% population decline triggers “mitigation actions” under a 2008 supplemental environmental impact statement that governs the Anticline. That same planning process created a state and federal agency-occupied board that did — and still does — direct where mitigation funds go.
According to the Journal of Environmental Management paper the creation of that board caused communications to shift “dramatically.”
“Prior to the [Anticline] board, decisions about the data, payments and reports were made collectively at the annual meeting at which all players were present,” the study says. “Subsequently, the communication on these topics became closed and the linkages among some players remained strong, yet communications with others, namely Wildlife Conservation Society, were almost completely severed.”
Toward the tail end of the five-year research partnership, divisions grew so strong that communications nearly ceased and reports on how pronghorn were faring went unpublished. In the interim the two parties failed to come to terms on how to describe the data. When researchers wrote in a 2007 draft report that two of the GPS-tracked pronghorn were demonstrating a “complete avoidance” of high-intensity development in the Anticline and Jonah gas fields, the petroleum companies involved replied, “This section and its accompanying figures should be deleted.”
One person who sat at the negotiating table on behalf of the gas industry disagreed with many of Berger and Beckmann’s conclusions.
By Mike Koshmrl
Jackson Hole News&Guide Via Wyoming News Exchange