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Environmental Engineer Credits UW Education for Mine Reclamation Successes

September 5, 2014
Man working outdoors
Kyle Wendtland, environmental manager at Cloud Peak Energy’s Antelope Mine and a University of Wyoming alumnus, examines vegetation on reclaimed land at the Powder River Basin coal mine. (Photo courtesy of Cloud Peak Energy)

An environmental engineer for a Wyoming coal company says his education at the University of Wyoming was instrumental in his development of a cheatgrass mitigation program that has been recognized with the federal government’s most prestigious mining reclamation award.

The work by Kyle Wendtland, environmental manager at Cloud Peak Energy’s Antelope Mine, resulted in the mine receiving the 2014 Excellence in Surface Coal Mining Reclamation Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. The award recognizes the Powder River Basin mine’s innovative techniques to promote native plant species and control cheatgrass, an invasive and undesirable plant species.

Wendtland, who received a bachelor’s degree (1989) and a master’s degree (1993) in range management from UW, says his success in cheatgrass mitigation stemmed directly from his master’s degree program. The fundamental science principles he learned at UW were successfully applied to mine land reclamation. He particularly credits the late Alan Ackerman "Doc" Beetle, longtime director of UW’s range management program, for inspiring his career achievements.

“The work of the University of Wyoming, my professors, its education program and Cloud Peak Energy have developed the academic, scientific and applied field skill sets to advance the science of reclamation in Wyoming,” Wendtland says. “This type of interaction is crucial for Wyoming’s future. Energy is a big part of our economy and heritage, and developing these partnerships is critical.”

Wendtland is scheduled to lecture Nov. 5 and 7 at UW in the classes of Pete Stahl, professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, and director of the Wyoming Restoration and Reclamation Center. Stahl says the university’s connection with Wendtland represents the type of interaction that benefits UW students, the state’s key industries, the environment and the science of restoration ecology.

“Kyle is one of the most innovative and thoughtful reclamationists working in the state of Wyoming,” Stahl says. “He has made a number of important contributions to advance land reclamation technology in sagebrush grasslands and plays an important role in training the new generation of experts in this field.”

Cheatgrass, which reduces both wildlife habitat and forage for livestock, has infested an estimated 50 million to 53 million acres in the American West. It can be a particular problem in areas disturbed by mining or other energy production. Through innovative husbandry practices and custom seeding techniques, the Antelope Mine has transformed more than 400 acres of cheatgrass-dominated lands into sustainable stands of native plants that achieve the post-mining land use goal of providing for livestock grazing and wildlife use.

The techniques developed at the Antelope Mine include use of an implement specifically designed to mechanically remove cheatgrass, stimulate establishment of native perennial species and develop a diverse, native plant community without the risks posed by herbicides, prescribed burning and re-farming.

“The reclamation practices developed at the Antelope Mine have landscape-scale application to reclaimed and native grassland environments where cheatgrass has become the dominant and undesirable plant species,” Wendtland says. “We believe that potential long-term benefits for species like sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse exist by taking sound, science-based steps to develop strategies improving habitat on reclamation and native grassland environments.”

Wendtland says the cheatgrass mitigation techniques are a result of 20 years of research and development. Those techniques, combined with cultivation of shrubs and other native plants, could have major implications for the future of habitat for sage grouse and other species on ranchlands and lands disturbed by mining and oil and gas development, he says.

“The work at Antelope Mine to control cheatgrass has been an ongoing effort and involved significant research and development,” says Steve Cowan, the mine’s general manager. “We hope the techniques developed here will help those in the mining and energy sectors, as well as agriculture and others, continue to improve reclamation around the country.”

Cloud Peak Energy Inc., headquartered in Gillette, is one of the largest U.S. coal producers, operating the Antelope and Cordero Rojo mines in Wyoming and the Spring Creek mine in Montana.

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