Natural Gas Production & Wildlife: It’s in the Mix

May 05, 2015

It is an early spring morning, the truck is idling and sitting on top of Dante Mountain awaiting the dawn, blank pages of tally sheets and habitat assessments are organized and ready to record the observations of the day. Welcome to a tour of the Dickenson County back roads dissecting the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries-managed Public Access Lands for Sportsman (PALS) area, as biologists perform an annual bobwhite quail call count survey. A series of ten quail call listening stations, separated by approximately one mile each, are to be observed. As the sun rises and illuminates the first forested area, the flurry of songbird calls are noted, but one bird’s familiar song goes unsung.

Station after station throughout the morning, the same story is told. Zeroes are tabulated down the right side of the page at the end of the day. The survey often leads to more questions than answers, with the most obvious question being: Where have all the bobwhites gone?

The answer lies not with the bird itself, but its preferred habitat. Early successional habitat is a term used to describe the developmental stages of plant communities that follow disturbance to existing forests. Mother Nature commonly uses processes such as wildfires, wind, and floods to open up a new canvas for early successional plants, the natural landscapes are almost always changing. With fire prevention and control programs in place to prevent property damage, humans have often halted these natural processions leaving closed canopies to be more of the norm.

At first glance a mature forest would seem to be a great area for wildlife, however, for many of our favorite species, a mature forest is stale and fails to meet their needs. A closed canopy can restrict the growth of understory herbaceous plants that offer seeds and fresh shoots that wildlife need for food and cover. Species that thrive in early successional habitats are actually in decline in Virginia. Not limited to bobwhite quail, other small mammals, insects, and birds such as, rabbits, honeybees, butterflies, ruffed grouse, and wild turkey, depend on early successional areas to thrive.

Virginia’s Gas and Oil Regulations require an erosion and sedimentation plan. The minimum requirements require clearing of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation before site and road construction begins. The permanent or temporary stabilization of soil with vegetation shall be used during construction and permanent stabilization after 30 days of final grade is also required. The permanent vegetative cover is established in order to inhibit erosion, but many of Virginia’s operators, are going an extra step to provide cover that controls erosion while adding benefits for wildlife.

Natural gas producers’ construction and reclamation staff has been choosing seed mixtures that include varieties of native grasses and legumes preferred by wildlife. An in-depth of the seed mixtures used includes browntop millet, perennial ryegrass, red and ladino clovers, and orchardgrass. This mixture is great for wildlife and erosion control, along with rye for quick establishing annual cover. Browntop millet is sewn across the nation as a popular wildlife food plot crop across the nation that attracts deer, quail, dove, and turkey. Orchardgrass is a cool season grass now preferred over the formerly common seeding of tall fescue because it is a clumping grass that provides valuable cover for small birds and mammals. The red and ladino clovers attract pollinators like bees and butterflies but also serve as nutritional forage for grazing wildlife.

“Today, our seed mixes are identical to those used by the Forest Service’s wildlife enhancement mixture,” states Chris Moore, Construction Supervisor at Range Resources – Pine Mountain, Inc., “the seed is purchased locally at Clintwood Farm Supply and is specially mixed with wildlife in mind. Early on, the industry standard was a mine reclamation mix which provided erosion control but offered very little for wildlife, we found the national forest mixture had a marginal cost difference and reaps greater rewards when you see the environmental benefits.”

While the surface disturbance for gas well locations is generally small, the cumulative benefits of the newly developed early successional areas provide an oasis for wildlife that can benefit them for generations to come.

For more information on Range's approach, visit the Maintaining the Surface section of Corporate Responsibility report.