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Carbon County unique as agencies, developers work together



By Sun Advocate

Eagles are one of the native raptors that make their home in Castle County. The BLM is mandated to manage the habitat for wildlife, while the Division of Fish & Wildlife have been collecting data on the eagles for many years.

Possibly it would have been a rare field trip in another part of the country or even a few years ago, but it seemed very natural for a group of 25 people to tour the coal bed methane fields in western Carbon county last week.
The group was made up of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials, environmentalists from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Resource Advisory Council (RAC), Phillips Petroleum personnel, and habitat biologists with the Division of Fish & Wildlife Services (USFWS).
This is not a group that regularly hangs out together.
It was a good example of the cooperation that is happening between utilities and gas development, conservationists and local land management.
BLM is mandated to develop federal minerals and also mandated to manage the habitat for wildlife. Therefore a dual responsibility that sometimes seems as duties that are at odds with each other.
The group spent a day and a half this past week discussing the placement of gas wells as they relate to raptor birds. There were several discussions throughout the field trip about the current policies of gas well placement, USFWS recommendations, and methods of efficient field development.
A couple interesting factors that makes Carbon county unique include the aggressive development of gas well exploration and also the large numbers of golden eagles and other raptor birds native to this area.
“We have one of the highest densities of golden eagle nests in the northwest,” said Chris Colt, habitat biologist with the DWR. Common raptors in this area include eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.
Representing Phillips Petroleum on the tour was Jean Semborski, permit analyst. She informed the group that the gas field here is the largest provider in the state of Utah and the third largest gas field in the western United States.
“We produce most of the gas for the Wasatch Front from this field,” she stated.
The significance of the tour included the discussions around development and awareness of the raptor habitat as additional gas wells are proposed. According to Dave Mills, Wildlife Biologist with the BLM, data and awareness are crucial for the future of the species.
Wildlife biologists have been tracking and surveying bird activity for at least five years in the area and have developed very useful data about the raptors and their nesting habits.
The data provides tools for future planning. It was pointed out that raptors are good indicators of healthy ecosystems. If the raptors are missing from an area, then often a link is missing in that system, such as the prey base. This, then disrupts the check-and-balance of nature.
The first stop on the tour was up Pinnacle Canyon where the group heard from David Mills with from the BLM, as well as Colt. They were able to view a golden eagle nest with a young bird, about 30 days old, high above in the cliffs. A bird doesn’t have to produce eggs to make it an occupied nest.

Gas wells are becoming a common sight throughout the coal bed methane fields of Carbon and Emery counties. The gas field here is the largest provider in the state of Utah and the third largest gas field in the western Untied States.

One of the groups interested in the data gathered by the biologist surveys was RAC, a group of people from throughout Utah that meet quarterly to discuss balancing development with existing wildlife habitat.
In the discussion of site specific analysis they pointed out that there are half mile buffer zones from nests, and they’ve found that through years of monitoring and interviews the system is very sufficient and does not disrupt the eagles.
“We have had a stable number of productive nest sites after the gas development began to occur,” stated Mills.
Colt explained that the monitoring process includes flying a helicopter using laser cameras to determine the distance to the nests and their bearings. Those spots are then plotted on a map.Year after year they keep the research current and growing. This gives officials first hand information as to where the nests are located.
The area presently being monitored runs from the bookclifts on the East and the entire west side of the Manti-LaSal forest south to Castle Dale.
Colt explained that the survey program is conducted for a number of energy related companies, including Phillips, Texaco, Chevron, Huber, and Energy West. There are 18 companies that split the cost of the helicopter program, which runs $800 an hour.
The data assists in making final decisions for determining the locations of wells. It helps answer questions such as how the BLM manages habitat for the raptor program, and how the program relates to mining. During the construction phase of a well they must be within the buffer zone limits which is outside the nest area. Some of the sensitive times for the birds is the period while they are selecting a nest site as well as during the nesting period. That time runs from Feb. 1 to July 15.
The Castle Valley area is ideal for eagle nesting. There are around 1300 known nests recorded and officials have looked at 700 nests this year alone with a total of 500 eagles recorded. Normally there are 50 active nests but this year there are only 11 nests with young.
There has been a dramatic drop in young eagles this year and that’s attributed to the extreme drought. The lack of water has also affected the prey base and in a year like this the low productivity of eagles might be attributed to the that.
According to Mills there are a lot of nests this year but not a lot of young birds or eggs. There was extensive discussion amongst the group about the drought and how it ultimately affects the birds. Golden Eagles run in cycles with a definite relationships to the number of prey available. Drought also causes less chicks per nest. In wet years most nests produce two birds.
The surveys that were done produced three or four years of data before active drilling was started in 1997.
Jean Semborski, with Phillips Petroleum, spoke to the group at the stop on the top of Pinnacle Bench overlooking one of the nests. Although the nest was close to a gas well site it was not visible from the road. Here the group discussed the guidelines for line-of-site nest in relation to wells. She explained that work on Drunkards Wash was started in 1991. At the time River Gas drilled three wells that first year and then expanded to 13. The next year they drilled 20 ,and then doubled that the following year. The benches up above Pinnacle Canyon began in 1997 and 1998. An environmental impact review was finished in 1997 and allowed the company to expand in other areas.
In January of 1999 a land exchange took place between BLM and the state of Utah where several parcels of land were exchanged. This allowed for further development.
Currently Phillips Petroleum (which bought out River Gas) has developed 450 wells and plans to develop another 150 over the next couple years before they begin to look at additional wells on the exterior of the field. The pad size for a typical coalbed methane well is about an acre and a half. Developers in this area are allowed only four wells per section or one on every 160 acres.
One of the stops the group made was at the top of Horse Bench where Mills and Colt discussed a specific nest in the area and a road that was developed in 1997. There was an active golden eagle nest and no existing road to the area where a well was being proposed for drilling. The BLM conducted an analysis of the nest and the proposed road. They consulted with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies and chose to built three artificially constructed nests up the canyon from the existing nest. These were built just in case the nest site was abandoned so that territory wouldn’t be lost. The nests were built into the cliffs and appeared very natural; styles the raptors were familiar with.
“They were fine looking nests and everything indicated that the eagles should abandon the nest very close to the road and choose one that was more removed and isolated,” said Mills.
The birds did not choose the new, remodeled, isolated nests but stayed in the original nest, which is very near the new road. In fact they have produced young birds every year since 1997.
“We are doing the best job we know how to protect the raptors in the area,” he said. “Both the division and BLM feel we are accomplishing what we have been trying to do.”
State officials feel that the local system in Price has been so successful that it could be used as an example for other state planning. It is a great example of agencies and development cooperating. Locally the environmental community is involved with biologists and cooperating with the development of very successful gas wells and energy development.

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