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Distance effects of gas field infrastructure on pygmy rabbits in southwestern Wyoming

August 31, 2020

As domestic energy development activity continues in the western United States, wildlife conservation planning in affected regions is increasingly important. The geologic basins where oil and gas energy exploration is occurring are primarily sagebrush steppe rangelands. Sagebrush steppe habitats may support more than 20 vertebrate species of conservation concern, and for many of these species, information is lacking on the effects of gas energy development. In earlier work, we demonstrated a negative relationship among development density of gas field infrastructure and pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis). We now examine the spatial relationship among gas field infrastructure, pygmy rabbits, and their habitat on four major gas fields in southwest Wyoming. Using data collected from 120 plots over three years (2011–2013) and 2012 National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) imagery, we evaluated (1) whether well pads are more likely to be located in areas of pygmy rabbit habitat, (2) whether the presence and abundance of pygmy rabbits are related to distance from infrastructure, and, if so, (3) how much of the total surface area on a gas field is affected. Well pads on three gas fields occurred in higher quality pygmy rabbit habitat than did a set of randomly generated points, and the abundance and probability of pygmy rabbits being present were lower within approximately 0.5–1.5 km of the nearest road and 2 km of well pads and utilities. Buffering a digital layer of roads and well pads on one gas field revealed that nearly 82% of the (4417 km2) surface area was within 1 km of infrastructure, and over 95% of the gas field surface area was within 2 km. This need not be the case on future gas fields. Directional and horizontal well drilling technologies now make it possible for gas to be recovered from a greater area per well pad, enabling future gas field developments that require fewer well pads, roads, and pipeline corridors. Such changes would enable increased well pad spacing and provide the opportunity to locate gas field infrastructure in areas of poor quality wildlife habitat, avoid high priority habitat, and conserve a greater amount of on‐field wildlife habitat overall.

Publication Year 2020
Title Distance effects of gas field infrastructure on pygmy rabbits in southwestern Wyoming
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.3230
Authors Stephen S. Germaine, Timothy Assal, Aaron Freeman, Sarah K. Carter
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70212980
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center