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Research to Enhance Oil and Gas Development and Environmental Protection on Federal - TASK 2 Potential Impact of Oil and Gas Field Activities on Raptor Nesting Radius/West Benches Raptor Research Project – 2005
Project Number

The goal of this project is to perform research that will enhance oil and gas operations and associated environmental protection opportunities in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Project tasks will provide sound science for Federal land managers to make more timely permitting decisions as well as maintain appropriate environmental protection of the various resources that exist on Federal lands. Money and time will be saved by the Federal and State regulatory agencies as well as the industry, and more thus more funds can be allocated to preservation or conservation of the resources on these lands. The overarching goal of the project is to identify spatial and temporal nest-protection stipulations that will minimize both disturbance to nesting raptors and the restrictions imposed on oil and gas development activities on federally managed lands in the western United States. Specifically, the goal of Phase I is to determine the effectiveness of existing raptor-nest-protection stipulations on BLM-managed lands by examining two historical datasets. The goal of Phase II is to benefit from insight gained during Phase I and then establish a rigorous scientific study to quantify disturbance thresholds of various nesting raptor species in relation to oil and gas development across a broad landscape area in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. This combination of efforts will provide a robust scientific basis for the continued use or modification of existing BLM raptor nest stipulations.


Bureau of Land Management, Denver, CO, Salt Lake City, UT, Cheyenne, WY
HawkWatch International, Inc., Salt Lake City, UT


BLM selected HawkWatch International (HWI), Inc., of Salt Lake City, UT, to undertake a 3-year research project funded by DOE through the BLM (Intra-governmental Order DE-AI26-06NT15467) to investigate the relationship between nesting raptors and oil and gas development activities in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. The research project is planned and described in two phases. Phase I consists of compiling and evaluating historical data relevant to the relationship between natural gas extraction activities and the distribution, abundance, and nest-site occupancy of raptors in the BLM Rawlins field office (FO) area of south-central Wyoming (focus on conventional natural gas extraction) and the BLM Price FO in southeastern Utah (focus on coalbed natural gas extraction). Phase II consists of a 2-year (2007-2008) field study conducted across replicate study areas in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado to document the distances and periods at which oil and gas development activities may have undesirable effects on nesting raptors.

The BLM is statutorily charged with managing roughly 260 million acres of public lands and additional acreage of Federal mineral interest in a multiple-use manner for the overall benefit of the American people. This management charge is directed at a variety of natural resources, including wildlife and oil/gas.

For several decades, the BLM has tried to accomplish this land management directive by imposing some management restrictions on various commodity development activities occurring on the public lands (e.g., oil and gas development and production) to protect high-priority wildlife species (e.g., raptors). To avoid impacting nesting raptors, the BLM has historically required oil and gas operators to stay out of avoidance zones, or areas within protective radii (sometimes referred to as buffer zones), around active raptor nests during the nesting season. These radii may vary from 0.25 to 2.5 miles in distance, depending on the species and habitat features involved, with larger radii being applied to the most sensitive species and circumstances.

The Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) Phase 1 studies of potential restrictions and impediments to oil and gas development (DOA, DOE, and DOI; January, 2003) implied some protective constraints imposed on Federal oil and gas leases may be too restrictive or unwarranted. Timing limitations associated with raptors have generated increased public comments in recent years on a number of BLM authorizations.

To relieve some of the ambiguity, anxiety, and concern emanating from these circumstances, BLM has entered into this research effort with DOE and other interests to provide a solid, scientific basis for the raptor protective measures that are applied in the oil and gas fields.

Oil and gas development has increased on Federal lands in the western United States in recent years. Many Federal lands under current or proposed energy development also support nesting raptors, but few studies have explicitly investigated the potential of oil and gas development activities to disturb nesting raptors. However, the potential for other human activities, such as hiking, camping, or rock climbing, to agitate or negatively impact nesting raptors is well documented. The BLM’s multiple-use management mandate requires that nesting raptors be considered when planning for the development of oil and gas resources. Additionally, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) or Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) require Federal land management agencies to prevent the “take” of raptors, their young, or nests. While most Federal land management plans relating to oil and gas development activities (e.g., BLM’s Resource Management Plans) contain spatial and/or temporal raptor nest-protection stipulations, these stipulations are commonly based on expert opinion or nest-disturbance research for only a limited array of raptor species. As a result, nest-protection stipulations often vary by agency and specific locality.

Phase I analyses have been completed for the Price, UT, area, and the Rawlins, WY, analyses are being finalized. A draft Phase I report is scheduled for completion on April 15, 2007. Phase II research is projected to begin in 2007.

This project has great potential to benefit the public, Federal land managers (e.g., the BLM), nesting raptors, and oil and gas operators. The public will benefit from increased understanding of relationships between oil and gas development and nesting raptors and a better general understanding of raptor nest-disturbance ecology, which in turn will enable them to engage more effectively in public discourse about management of our shared public lands. Federal land management agencies will benefit from the identification of limitations in past raptor nest-monitoring protocols. Additionally, this research will benefit land managers through the production of recommendations for improved monitoring protocols and standardized nest status terminology. Land managers will also benefit from increased understanding of raptor nest-disturbance ecology. The rigorous quantification of nest-disturbance thresholds will affirm or suggest the modification of existing raptor nest-protection stipulations. Finally, land managers will benefit from scientifically defensible protection stipulations (i.e., scientifically based stipulations are less likely to be challenged than those based on “expert opinion”). Raptors will benefit from scientifically based nest-protection stipulations. Oil and gas operators would benefit from any species-specific refinement of current nest-protection stipulations that reduce the spatial or temporal restrictions placed on their operations, or which due to their high scientific integrity help streamline permitting procedures.

By providing a strong, scientifically credible basis for recommended management guidelines and enhanced tools for evaluating the potential impact of future development, the project performers expect their work to substantially improve the efficiency of oil and gas development while helping to ensure adequate protection for valuable wildlife resources.

BLM submitted an initial proposal to DOE for funding consideration, revised and resubmitted a final project proposal (consolidated) for record and reference file, and assembled a research oversight group. A task timeline for the project was created. A statement of work (SOW) for the procurement was developed, and the procurement of a research investigator was obtained through an assistance agreement with HawkWatch International. A communications plan for the project was developed, and initial contacts and dialogue with the affected parties have begun. Preliminary data gathering and investigations have also begun.

Phase I efforts have focused primarily on the acquisition and preparation of datasets available for lands managed by the Rawlins, Wyoming, and Price, UT, BLM FOs. Specifically, datasets representing historic raptor nest locations and activity status, oil and gas well locations and drilling dates, road locations, topography, and vegetation in each study area were acquired and prepared for use in ArcMap 9, a GIS (geographic information system) program. Features were rectified or improved with the aid of aerial photographs (e.g., additional roads were digitized, and some well locations were corrected). The strengths and weaknesses of each dataset were evaluated to determine feasible objectives for Phase I. The conclusions reached with regard to the data and feasible objectives were presented to the BLM through planning meetings held at the Price and Rawlins BLM FOs and in a detailed study plan prepared by HWI (“Oil and Gas Field Activities and Nesting Raptors: A Study to Evaluate Spatial and Temporal Nest Protection Buffers”). Initial revisions to the study plan were made based on BLM steering committee comments. Additional reviews were then solicited from selected members of an extended “working group” that either were involved in data collection in the two Phase I study areas or otherwise helped formulate the vision for the project: Mark Fuller, US Geologicaly Survey, Idaho; Chris Colt and Nathan Sill, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources; and Ed Hollowed and Brett Smithers, BLM White River FO, Colorado. The final study plan further benefited from independent peer review provided by Karen Steenhof (USGS, Idaho), Tom Thurow (University of Wyoming), and Jim Watson (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife). The finalized study plan was approved by the steering committee on August 21, 2006.

Phase II efforts thus far have focused on the identification of potential study sites for the field research efforts to be undertaken in 2007 and 2008, resolution of potential permitting issues, dissemination of project information and research needs to potential cooperating BLM offices and oil and gas industry representatives during introductory/planning meetings, follow-up visits with potential industry collaborators, and field reconnaissance in the potential study areas. The following BLM FOs are being considered for this research: White River and Glenwood Springs, CO, Vernal, UT, and Rawlins and Buffalo, WY. Contact was made with BLM biologists and/or natural resource specialists in each FO to discuss the suitability (e.g., the density of nesting raptors and level of oil and gas field development) of each area for Phase II research efforts. In addition to the raptor nesting data and oil and gas well locations acquired for Phase I from the Price and Rawlins FOs, similar datasets were acquired for the White River, Vernal, and Buffalo FOs.

HWI also contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 6 Permit Office to discuss Phase II permitting needs, specifically concerning possible oil and gas operator activities that may come into violation of the MBTA or BGEPA at selected experimental nest sites (i.e., those where drilling is allowed to occur closer than typically allowed by the BLM during the nesting season). Because oil and gas activities may comprise a “take” at a subset of these experimental nests under definitions contained in the MBTA and BGEPA, HWI be seeking permits to protect BLM and industry cooperators from any potential liability.

Contacts within each BLM FO were utilized to identify potential collaborators within the oil and gas industry. Major operators in each area include: Encana, Riata Energy, Williams, and ExxonMobil in the White River and Glenwood Springs FOs, CO; Conoco-Phillips in the Price FO, UT; EOG Resources, Newfield, Questar, Kerr-McGee, Enduring Resources, Houston Exploration, Dominion, and Gasco Energy in the Vernal FO, UT; Merit Energy, Yates Petroleum, BP, Encana, Questar, and Devon Energy in the Rawlins FO, WY, Encana, Noble Energy, and Bill Barrett in the Casper FO, WY; Williams, Lance Oil and Gas, Anadarko, Kennedy Oil, and Yates Petroleum in the Buffalo FO, WY.

Full-day introductory/planning meetings were held in the White River, Vernal, and Rawlins FOs in September and October 2006 to disseminate information about proposed Phase II efforts to BLM, wildlife agency, and industry representatives (at least one representative from each company listed above was invited to attend). These meetings also provided an opportunity to learn from participants about area nesting raptors, industry operations, specific project-related concerns, and the potential for collaboration with industry partners. Additionally, an October meeting was held with BLM representatives from the Casper and Buffalo FOs to discuss the potential suitability of these FOs to serve as supplemental study areas. An introductory meeting was also held in September in the Utah State Office of the BLM to inform representatives from the Utah BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the project and elicit their input and concerns. Individual follow-up meetings with industry representatives in November provided additional insight into the concerns of industry (primarily the short time frame available in which to alter existing development plans). In conjunction with these November area visits, HWI participated in onsite activities in the White River area and performed field reconnaissance work there and in Vernal in an attempt to identify specific research opportunities (i.e., nests proximal to well locations recently or awaiting approval).

In addition to the phase-specific tasks completed above, HWI and the BLM steering committee have communicated monthly via conference calls to discuss the progress and direction of the research project.

Current Status

(January 2009)
Project terminated due to budget shortfall.

Funding was provided by DOE in an interagency agreement with BLM in an effort to conduct research on specific issues that have common concerns across Federal lands.

Project Start
Project End
DOE Contribution


Performer Contribution


BLM has developed a fund for the Assistance Agreement with HWI for FY 2007 and FY 2008.

Other Government Organizations Involved: Bureau of Land Management Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming State Offices; Rawlins, Casper, and Buffalo FOs; Price and Vernal FOs; White River and Glenwood Springs FOs—Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Colorado Division of Wildlife, USGS Biological Resources Division, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Contact Information

NETL - Jesse Garcia ( or 918-699-2036) 
BLM – Mary Nagel ( or 303-236-0837)
BLM – David L. Mills ( or 435.896.1571
BLM – Dave Roberts ( or 307.775.6099
HawkWatch International – Jeff Smith – or 801.484.6808 x109
HawkWatch International – Steve Slater – or 801.484.6808 x10