End of the Road?- page 3 | Science | Smithsonian
Small but cherished, the Grand Teton herd faces a growing number of man-made obstacles—including more than 100 fences (this one near Pinedale, WY) thrown up along the migration route that it has followed for millennia. (Wendy Shattil & Bob Rozinski)

End of the Road?

Development threatens to block the ancient migration of a herd of pronghorn antelopes in western Wyoming. Without new protections, conservationists say, the speedy animals are running out of time.

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Stanley counters that fracing takes place thousands of feet below groundwater aquifers, and "numerous precautions" isolate the water from fracing fluids and natural gas.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees most of the land targeted for energy development. The agency's task, according to its mission statement, is to balance energy needs, wildlife resources and recreation. An assistant secretary of the Interior, C. Stephen Allred, whose department includes the BLM, says, "We are always looking to reduce the human footprint." For instance, he says, proposed pipelines would reduce truck travel by 125,000 trips per year.

In a report released in June 2005, the Government Accountability Office, which evaluates federal programs, said the BLM's enforcement capability had been undermined by the current administration's accelerated granting of permits for new drilling. If something isn't done, the report concluded, "the environmental impacts of oil and gas development could compromise BLM's responsibility for protecting the environment."

Some environmental safeguards have been eased or relaxed. In the late 1990s, companies were required to limit the density of wells per acre and to shut down winter operations for the benefit of wildlife. In 2002, Questar, Ultra, Shell and other energy companies were granted exemptions, including higher well densities, year-round operations and relaxed pollutant limits. Provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 specifically exempt fracing liquids from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Emissions from diesel trucks and drilling rig engines have led to a perceptible decline in the air quality, with plumes of haze that cloud the once-limitless horizon. "Nobody in this valley would refute that we're losing our 100-mile views," says Baker.

Baker and I bump back onto Highway 191 and observe a skyline spiked with drilling rigs. Baker says she doesn't oppose energy development and objects only to the manner and speed with which it is being done, as if gas deposits that sat for millions of years would suddenly disappear if they weren't exploited immediately. "Could somebody tell me what the rush is all about?" she asks.

On a snowy day in mid-May, regional wildlife supervisor Bernie Holz and I are in his truck outside Pinedale, looking for signs of pronghorn returning to Grand Teton National Park. Earlier in the spring, he tells me, a migrating lead doe, skittish after crossing fence lines and skirting around new Pinedale subdivisions, balked at crossing Highway 191. The herd backed up behind her, tried to detour up a bluff, then returned and gathered in collective confusion at the highway's edge: 6,000 years of collective memory confronting a ribbon of asphalt. Game and Fish employees fanned out along the road and stopped traffic, as if directing children at a school crossing.

Holz has worked with pronghorns since he started with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in 1983, and he has hunted them even longer. In his quiet but commanding Western drawl, he says that too many people just won't face the fact that there's a limit to what the animals can take. "People always want to know," he says, "how much more of this we can do before we have to stop." Holz says he's convinced that the most important use of the land "is as a migration corridor. It's not as oil and gas or anything else. In our heart of hearts, we know we're going to clobber this place."

We drive to Trapper's Point, which commands one of the region's most impressive views, taking in the New Fork and Green rivers, as well as the Wyoming, Gros Ventre and Wind River ranges. In the distance, we spot several small groups of pronghorns. Some of the does are pregnant. I ask Holz what it will take to convince Americans that the point of no return is upon us. "I think it takes an urgency and a belief that this resource is going to be lost," he answers slowly, adding that the pronghorn we see are waiting for the snows to melt so they can return to Grand Teton National Park and give birth to this year's fawns. As much to himself as to me, he adds: "This is worth trying to do."

From our perch on Blacktail Butte, Joel Berger and I spot other pronghorn does with their fawns, grazing against the jaw-dropping backdrop of the jagged Grand Tetons. I ask him why saving such a relatively small herd is so important. "This is the longest migration of a land species outside the Arctic in the New World," he says. "If we can't save this pronghorn migration—an event that has been occurring for 6,000 years through a narrow thread of a corridor—then what hope do we have for conserving other migrations?" That this corridor links to one of the world's premier national parks just adds to the urgency, he says.

The Bergers' proposal for a National Migration Corridor enjoys strong support here in Teton County, where the pronghorns are born, but not among commissioners in Sublette County, where pronghorns winter. Federal designation requires Congressional action. So far, Wyoming's Congressional delegation has been lukewarm to the idea.

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