It’s a Saturday morning in June, which means that Gary Lefko is cruising the Pawnee National Grassland in his 1999 green Subaru Impreza, looking for birds. With the windows down and camera and binoculars close at hand, Lefko drives along, noting any specimens that pass his sightline. There’s a red-tailed hawk, perched on a power pole. There are some lark buntings, the Colorado state bird, small and black with a white chevron on their wings, seemingly floating atop blades of high grass. A few McCown’s longspurs, medium-sized grayish-brown birds, flutter up and down in the air farther ahead by the side of the road. “You get used to the birds in your area, and you can tell what they are from their behavior and their silhouette,” Lefko says.
Lefko calls his weekend pastime “stop-and-go birding,” because it allows him to cover more of the expansive shortgrass prairie. An hour’s drive northeast of Denver and encompassing an area twice the size of the city, the Pawnee’s whopping diversity of songbirds and raptors has earned the area a reputation as a birder’s paradise and designation as an official Important Birding Area. Some people drive hundreds of miles and fly in from around the world to view mountain plovers and burrowing owls, and the lark buntings and longspurs, summer migrants that breed here.
Not that there are crowds of bird nerds clogging the county roads. “A great day on the Pawnee is not seeing anyone,” Lefko says. This day, he sees only two other vehicles on the Pawnee, and just one other birder, who is camped on a dirt road outside his SUV with a spotting scope, hoping to glimpse an elusive mountain plover. Someone posted a sighting on that stretch of road at Colorado Birder, a popular online forum.
That someone was Lefko, who runs the website from his home in Nunn, a speck of a town in northern Weld County on the edge of the Pawnee. Lefko caught the birding bug when he moved to Colorado in the mid-1990s, after retiring from the Air Force. When curious birders contact him through the site to ask for advice or help on viewing birds on the Pawnee, he often volunteers to take them out. He’s usually heading afield anyway.
In recent years, Lefko has begun spotting a whole other family of beasts nesting in the Pawnee. Oil and gas drilling has skyrocketed in the area over the past decade, part of a nationwide industry boom that has tapped underground shale formations up and down the Front Range and elsewhere across the state. Just as he tracks the birds he sees, Lefko notes the pump jacks and well pads that have sprung up on the grassland. On some outings, he has seen dozens of tall blue flames from flare stacks, burning off unused methane and glowing in the half dark in and around the Pawnee. When he and his wife drive state highway 14, which runs through the grassland, they count the tank batteries — rows of cylindrical metal silos that store oil — and other industry equipment that keeps filling in pieces of the prairie. “There’s more every time,” Lefko says.
Amid the massive grassland, the industry impacts may not seem like much. The Pawnee still mostly looks like an empty, undeveloped canvas of greens and browns.
But each new well pad and scraped patch of ground and every truck that rumbles along and kicks up dust from the dirt roads affects this subtly beautiful ecosystem. Lines of wind turbines along the edge of the Pawnee can also harm birds. The piecemeal energy development destroys bird and wildlife habitat and alters the shortgrass prairie in ways that even scientists don’t fully understand. Some compare the impacts to death by a thousand cuts for the flora and fauna of grasslands already in decline.
And those threats aren’t going away. This May, the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the minerals and energy deposits beneath the grassland, raked in $30.8 million in new lease sales on the Pawnee. That will allow energy companies to drill beneath more than 25,000 additional acres, opening nearly all of the public grassland to energy development. And much of that development occurs with minimal oversight, since federal government officials do not manage or monitor activity happening on the large amount of private land that falls within the Pawnee National Grassland boundaries.
“There’s been an oil well here, an oil well there, but what’s happening now is systematic, full-scale development, unlike anything that’s happened up there before,” says Jeremy Nichols, the Golden-based climate- and energy-program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The bottom line is, when you go into the Pawnee now, the oil and gas industry has basically overtaken the entire landscape.”
Spread across 300 square miles, the Pawnee feels like a region lost in time. The only eye-catching natural landmarks are the Pawnee Buttes, two 350-foot-high rocky hills on the eastern side of the grassland that stand out like pimples of earth on the otherwise gently rolling and flat terrain. Wooden windmills, dirt and gravel roads, lazy herds of cattle and old homesteads are still common sights, and a visitor could be forgiven for thinking he took an odd turn off the state highway back to the 1930s in some sections. In other spots, vigilant travelers can still spy chain-link-fenced concrete enclosures covering Minuteman III missile silos not far from roadsides and rewind to the Cold War era. In still other areas, views to the horizon offer no sign of human settlement; it’s not hard to imagine a herd of bison wandering by. “There are still places where you can see nothing but grass and sky,” says Polly Reetz, conservation chair for the Audubon Society of Greater Denver.
The Pawnee National Grassland is an environmental relic. Grasslands once covered most of Middle America, from Illinois to Colorado and beyond the nation’s northern and southern borders. Today, ecologists estimate that 20 percent or less of those ecosystems remains, the rest having been converted to farmland or lost to development. To the east, tallgrass prairies that receive ample rain were prime targets for agriculture and have almost entirely vanished beneath Midwestern farms and cities; only about 4 percent of what was once native tallgrass remains. Farming and land conversion have reduced the mixed-grass landscape on the eastern half of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas by as much as 90 percent. Least affected but hardly unscathed, the shortgrass steppe is the warmest and driest of the nation’s non-desert grasslands. The Pawnee and a few other protected national grasslands and surrounding areas in Colorado and neighboring states are what’s left.
The eastern Colorado prairie was never ideal for settlement, but that didn’t stop ranchers and dryland farmers from homesteading across the region starting around 1880. Rain is infrequent, yet arrives in intense storms, with hail and winds that are destructive to crops. The blue grama, buffalo grass, fescue and wheatgrass tend to have shallow roots due to the low moisture, so plowing or overgrazing can cause major soil losses. Those very conditions and 1930s drought triggered the Dust Bowl. In response, during the New Deal, the federal government stepped in to buy up parcels, resettle families and restore damaged lands. Those areas became national grasslands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. There are twenty of them across the western half of the Great Plains today.
The government’s relief programs left an unusual and complicated legacy of ownership. The Pawnee, for instance, includes both public and private lands, so not all areas are managed in the same way. The U.S. Forest Service can set rules for the public lands, but the agency lacks authority on the private lands mixed within the grassland boundaries. Just to the west, the nearly-as-large Central Plains Experimental Range, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serves as a research center where scientists study the long-term effects of grazing and environmental changes on wildlife, soil and the grassland.
Today, two grazing associations with a total of 88 ranchers still run about 8,000 cattle on the Pawnee, using private lands but also grazing permits on the public lands, where they have to stick to the Forest Service’s rules. To add to the administrative maze, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is in charge of leasing the publicly owned belowground mineral and energy resources for public lands. Lease sales occur several times a year, with private companies bidding for the right to explore and develop resources beneath parcels. At the same time, energy companies hold private rights to subsurface energy resources beneath both public and private lands.
Dispersed energy drilling first began around the 1950s, mostly toward the eastern edge of the Pawnee, where there are more private lands. A few old-fashioned gushers paid out, but test wells often yielded poor results. The underlying Niobrara Formation’s shale rock and tight sands weren’t cost-effective to drill. Still, pump jacks bobbing and pulling oil from the ground became common in Weld County and around the Pawnee by the 1970s.
This was the rural, working landscape that birders discovered around that time. Founders of a newly formed Denver chapter of the Audubon Society began visiting and camping on the grassland in the ’70s, after scientists recognized that the Pawnee was one of the main breeding areas for mountain plovers — mid-sized, brown-winged, white-bellied birds that migrate up and down the plains. Watchers also came to see burrowing owls and the lark bunting and longspurs that bred in the short grasses and amid prairie-dog colonies, to spy golden eagles, ferruginous hawks and other raptors that nested along the cliffs of the buttes, and to view pronghorn and swift foxes. In 1975, Denver Audubon launched its Grassland Institute, a weeklong nature camp of sorts. Each summer, about forty people from all over the country would come out and learn about the Pawnee’s birds and wildlife, geology and history. Since then, the grassland has been recognized as an Important Birding Area, one of about 10,000 worldwide recognized for rare species or key habitat through an Audubon program. In 2011, the Forest Service also established the 21-mile-long Bird Tour route, and birders now regularly name the grassland as a top destination.
Ranchers and other locals weren’t initially excited about the birders’ attention, recalls Ed Butterfield, a former Aurora high-school biology teacher who ran the institute until it ended in 1988, when Audubon shifted funding to other programs. Butterfield says that Denver Audubon pushed the Forest Service to limit overgrazing by ranchers by encouraging them to move their cattle between pastures more frequently. Environmentalists also battled with ranchers and the Forest Service over efforts to remove prairie dogs, whose burrows and tunnels were hazardous to clumsy cows, but also key habitat for plovers, burrowing owls, swift foxes and other animals.
Over time, the stakeholders found connections. Ranchers and energy officials would give summer talks to the birders about their practices and the area’s history, and Exxon helped fund the institute. And it turned out that plovers, which prefer bare patches for nesting, would even use well pads or grazed prairie, cleared of vegetation, for their breeding sites. The Forest Service has also enacted rules that limit activities during certain critical times for grassland birds, such as nesting seasons for raptors and mountain plovers.
Still, nationwide grassland losses to development and farmland conversion have eroded the numbers of plovers and other species. Twice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has considered the mountain plover for threatened-species status under the Endangered Species Act. Most recently, in 2011, the agency determined that threats were less significant than previously believed — a decision that WildEarth Guardians disputes. But by then, the Pawnee and its birds and wildlife were facing a new threat from a resurgent drilling practice.
Anyone who hasn’t heard of fracking by now is probably living underground, albeit not in a place that holds oil and gas.
The industry first used hydraulic fracturing in the 1940s, pumping water, laden with sand and often chemicals, into the ground to crack open subsurface rock layers holding gas and then pump the resources aboveground. But new seismic-modeling technology, a push to develop more natural gas and a key exemption from federal safe-drinking-water rules under President George W. Bush kicked off a fracking renaissance in the early 2000s. Combined with advances in directional drilling that allow companies to drill down and then laterally underground, the industry could finally crack into shale formations, like the Niobrara Formation, and pump up both gas and oil from formerly marginal regions.
The outcome is, of course, visible along much of the northern Front Range, which overlies the Niobrara. Denver bedroom communities have wrestled with drill rigs and well pads encroaching upon neighborhoods and schools. And while many communities and counties have tried to buffer or block the development, Weld County has embraced the boom. In 2014, energy companies, led by Noble Energy and Anadarko Petroleum, produced more than 70 million barrels of oil from Weld County through thousands of wells, more than doubling output from just two years before. That’s happening even as oil prices have dropped off and companies are making layoffs.
Around the Pawnee, Gary Lefko began seeing changes about a decade ago. Between his home in Nunn and the grassland’s boundaries, he noticed survey lines where companies were doing seismic tests, using “thumper trucks” to send vibrations beneath the surface to map underground resources. He saw his first fracking wastewater pool along a nearby county road around 2007. On his weekend birding drives and treks, the industrial creep of energy development became unavoidable, and dirt roads became rutted and rough to drive from an increase in heavy trucks. “I used to be to be able to go out here and get lost and not see any signs of human development for hours,” Lefko says. “That’s changed.”
It’s not just the new well pads and battery tanks. On this June morning, driving Highway 14 and the county roads, he points out a recently built small subdivision of houses, a reopened gas station with an expanded lot for vehicles and equipment, and another large staging area with truck-loading bays that resembles a highway travel plaza and would be hard to miss.
Another hard-to-miss sign of energy development fills in the northern horizon along parts of the Pawnee. The Cedar Creek Wind Farm, near the almost-ghost town of Grover on the edge of the national grassland, is one of the largest onshore wind farms in the U.S., with 274 turbines. The facility was built to reduce impacts on species’ migration patterns and behavior. But access roads carve up large blocks of wildlife habitat, and turbines almost inevitably harm birds and interrupt the open and flat vistas that define the shortgrass prairie.
Lefko has spoken out against the development — with dubious results. In early 2013, a company proposed building a fracking explosives bunker near Nunn to house up to 4,000 pounds of materials that are used to “perforate” well casings before injecting fracking fluids into the ground. Lefko and others shared concerns about the depot at a Weld County public meeting, but officials were unresponsive. Besides, isolated and tiny Nunn is probably as appropriate a town as any for such a facility. “Part of me thought, why did I even come to this meeting?” says Lefko. The bunker was approved and built.
Despite the sprawling footprint of energy development, the public lands of the Pawnee only contain about sixty oil and gas wells and another nineteen production sites, a steady count in recent years, according to Reghan Cloudman, a Forest Service spokeswoman. If that’s out of sync with people’s observations, that’s because much of the activity occurs on the intermixed privately owned lands. “When people drive out there and see a lot of oil and gas development and the wind turbines, the majority of that is on private lands,” Cloudman says. A 2013 analysis by the Fort Collins Coloradoan found a total of 214 wells producing oil and gas and another 71 wells being drilled within the grassland’s boundaries, suggesting that three out of every four wells on the Pawnee are being sited on private lands.
Whether interested in public or private land, all energy companies have to submit a drilling application and a handful of additional forms that address operations for any proposed well through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Counties also have their own permits, which review the exact sites of wells, plans for water use and disposal, and impacts to local roads, for instance. In situations that involve public lands or minerals, an operator will also have to meet federal agencies’ additional stipulations, such as timing restrictions that protect birds and limit drilling during nesting seasons. Bob Randall, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, says that the oil and gas commission has an agreement with the feds to consistently consider drilling permits and, with input from state wildlife managers, could require the same timing restrictions on private lands mixed in with public lands. But that’s not always the case.
Recent debates through a state oil and gas task force that is once again evaluating the effectiveness of Colorado’s drilling rules will likely have little impact on the pace or density of development on the Pawnee, since most proposed revisions address activities occurring near residential communities, or “urban mitigation areas.” Compared with concerns about the health, environmental and noise effects of a drill rig erected within a stone’s throw of a school or how many wells constitute an industrial “large facility” near a suburban neighborhood, the proliferation of big and small well pads and storage tanks across the rural grassland isn’t considered much of a worry. Even after the state oil and gas commission concluded that a series of small earthquakes in Weld County this May were “potentially related” to the injection of fracking wastewater into the ground, it took regulators three weeks to shut down nearby operations, which were soon after allowed to resume on a limited basis with monitoring.
Amid the fracking frenzy, the Forest Service began studying the environmental impacts of new energy leasing beneath the Pawnee in 2011. The agency’s final analysis, approved this past February, addresses leasing and sets rules for the 100,000 public-land acres that were, as of then, un-leased. That now leaves fewer than 3,000 acres as entirely off limits from leasing and drilling. The report projects about 265 new wells following lease sales. But it also mandates “no surface occupancy” (NSO), prohibiting industry from placing well pads and other infrastructure on the public lands. New roads or pipelines to be buried will be considered on a site-by-site basis.
Cloudman says the NSO requirements should reduce the overall numbers of wells and pads and disturbances on the grassland, even compared with outright banning of leasing on the public lands, based on the agency’s analysis.
Environmentalists offer guarded praise for the NSO rules, since they’ll limit development aboveground on the public portions of the grassland. But the stipulations will also push even more equipment onto private lands, where companies can use directional drilling to get at leases beneath adjacent public lands — and where the Forest Service doesn’t monitor what happens. “It’s a mixed blessing,” says Ed Butterfield.
Consider Noble Energy, one of the major operators in the Niobrara. In January, Noble proposed to drill as many as 89 new oil wells from fifteen well pads along the edge of the Pawnee. A small portion of the project will drill under the grassland but follow no-surface-disturbance practices for the public lands. That means that the development impacts will all occur on private lands, where there’s less oversight. This spring, Noble agreed to pay $13.5 million in fines and environmental mitigation through a settlement with the state, U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, following emissions violations from outdated equipment on oil storage tanks in northern Colorado. While the company reported a $10 million loss at the start of 2015, its oil sales out of Weld County continue to climb, and Noble is investing heavily in the region while rolling back production in other places.
Local landowners around the Pawnee aren’t complaining. Several ranchers say they appreciate the additional income from industry agreements and, in some cases, royalties, if the landowner also owns a share of the minerals.
“It’s a tough situation for the Forest Service, but I don’t want to cut them too much slack,” says Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, who adds that the agency has been “timid” in trying to manage the public-private patchwork, and could do more to consolidate public holdings. That includes even applying seasonal drilling bans to protect nesting birds on private parcels on the grassland, he suggests. Otherwise, the plover remains at risk, and environmentalists could push again for it to be listed through the Endangered Species Act. If that happens, both ranchers and drillers are likely to face tougher restrictions.
As things are now, a thin line separates places open or closed to energy development — often literally. Along the Bird Tour route, where birders frequently park and scope for songbirds or can hike through cottonwood groves in Crow Valley to glimpse raptors in dead-tree snags, the road meanders through both public and private lands. That means that well pads and increased truck traffic could still damage habitat, scare off birds and ruin birders’ days if industry activity starts up along the private side of the road.
So far, there are no immediate plans for new wells, according to Cloudman, but environmentalists don’t expect companies to just sit on the leases. Despite the no-surface restrictions, recently sagging oil prices and busted natural-gas prices, the $30 million-plus in lease sales this May suggests that industry isn’t hitting the brakes. The companies that purchased the leases often serve as intermediaries, doing the bidding for another firm that will do the drilling.
“There’s still a lot of industry interest, and some of these wells have shown considerable payback,” Nichols says. His group protested the sales, claiming that air-quality and climate effects weren’t properly analyzed, and is getting ready to sue the feds over the leases.
Lefko and Butterfield both say they see fewer birds than they have in years past on the Pawnee — especially the seasonal visitors, such as burrowing owls, mountain plovers, McCown’s longspurs and grasshopper sparrows. Bird diversity and numbers decline traveling west to east, Lefko notes, as well pads and development increases. Despite plovers’ tolerance and use of well pads, the one he mentioned on the Colorado Birder website is the only one he’s seen this year
Scientists are now asking whether birds are really declining and what specific factors may be causing those changes. But determining that is tricky in the grassland, where wildlife and bird populations are already scarce and the impacts of energy development are many.
Doug Johnson, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, has led a three-year study of grassland birds in western North Dakota, where oil production from the Bakken shale formation is outpacing that of the Niobrara. The results are under review now, but Johnson says that longspurs, sparrows, Western meadowlarks and other grassland birds avoided new oil and gas development, often keeping several hundred yards away from the sites. Responses of burrowing owls and others were less clear.
“We believe avoidance is carried on, basically, genetically,” Johnson says. “A lot of these birds evolved on the Great Plains, where there were no tall structures or trees, except in the river valleys, so they could see, literally, for miles. So some of them are sensitive whether it’s trees or a wind turbine or an oil well.”
Johnson notes that new energy technology also requires more intensive maintenance, which is likely to cause additional disturbances. Before the emergence of fracking, well pads had a single pump jack, and crews only visited sites every few months for maintenance. But newer pads are often larger — sometimes because they contain multiple wells, which means fewer pads elsewhere — and require more upkeep from crews. “The old development had a pretty minimal impact compared with new ones, which are like a little industrial area,” Johnson says.
Ingrid Burke, an ecology professor and director of the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, has studied the effects of older energy development in Wyoming and found that what happens just below the surface is as critical as what happens on the ground. Grasslands have evolved to be drought-resistant and maintain their vegetation through changes, she says. But as drilling, pipelines and other equipment disturb the soil and the shallow roots of shortgrass vegetation, they can cause “some very long-term damage,” Burke adds.
And what happens if — or when — the Pawnee hits a tipping point?
Near dusk on a June evening, the shortgrass steppe surrounding the buildings of the Semi-arid Grasslands Research Center glows an illuminated shade of yellow. Wildflowers, plains greenthread, are putting on a rare display of bright colors across parts of the prairie this year thanks to the steady rains. Situated on the Central Plains Experimental Range, the center, run by Colorado State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, coordinates long-term studies of the grassland.
At a study site along a two-track road in the grass, husband-and-wife CSU grasslands ecologists Melinda Smith and Alan Knapp are walking between what look like short, hoop-house greenhouses. These are actually research plots: Some of the canopies are fully covered, denying any rain from hitting the ground beneath, while others are missing a few or more of the slates on the hoops, allowing some or all of the rain to make it into the soil. The different structures simulate different levels of drought versus normal conditions. Smith and Knapp are basically experimenting with what happens when grasslands are pushed to their breaking point; they want to see if the grasslands will keep adapting to the changing conditions and maintain the same mix of grasses, or whether the plants “do something we don’t expect,” Knapp says.
“How they respond is a question of evolutionary history,” adds Smith, the research center’s director.
The study is part of a global network, replicating the same experiment in six different grasslands around the world. While the project is just getting off the ground, in a few years the data could show how grasslands respond to a multi-year mega-drought, offering scientists a glimpse of climate change and helping managers to prepare for the future. And since there is no oil and gas drilling on the experimental range, studies from the site can provide important benchmarks for understanding how grasslands function and how species respond when there are no industry activities, Smith says.
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Still, in-depth, big-picture studies of energy development and its impacts are lacking. “Data on all of this is kind of sparse,” says Liba Pejchar, a CSU conservation biology professor. Pejchar co-authored a research paper published in the journal Bioscience this past March that reviewed studies of “energy sprawl,” the impacts from oil, gas and wind projects. The team found that many studies overlook or fail to consider certain “indirect” impacts, such as wildlife mortality from trucks, power lines or flaring, or the effects of habitat fragmentation where large areas are cut into smaller sections by roads and well pads and cleared ground for pipelines. And while other environments — such as sagebrush lands, where managers, drillers, ranchers and others are all scrambling to avoid government species protection for the wide-ranging greater sage grouse — are receiving lots of research attention, grasslands and energy impacts are generally under-studied.
Another recent study, published this April in the journal Science, tried to quantify the scattered impacts and came up with a staggering tally: The report concluded that all the well pads, roads and storage tanks and facilities built between 2000 and 2012 across the Great Plains now cover 3 million hectares of land — in patches — which is equivalent to stripping vegetation off an area three times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Those cumulative effects are missed when managers consider projects well pad by well pad, or only look at the partial mosaic of public lands that comprise the Pawnee. “The best thing we can do is think about these things at large landscape scales,” says Pejchar.
Through the lenses of his binoculars, Gary Lefko’s view is significantly smaller than the whole of the Pawnee landscape. But he’s seen enough: “I think we’re losing what the Pawnee National Grassland is.”
Joshua Zaffos is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor of natural-resources communications at Colorado State University; see more of his work at joshuazaffos.com and via @jzaffos on Twitter. You can e-mail him about this story via firstname.lastname@example.org.