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Soil Reclamation

UW’s WRRC Provides Reclamation Education to the State

Volume 15 | Number 1 | September 2013

By Ron Podell
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Drilling and mining for natural resources in Wyoming may grab many of the news headlines in the state, but what happens after—reclamation and restoration of the disturbed land—is just as important.

The University of Wyoming’s Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center (WRRC) is doing its part, providing educational opportunities statewide for oil and gas company representatives, environmentalists, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other entities that play a role in restoring and rehabilitating disturbed ecosystems.

The WRRC, headed by Pete Stahl, a UW professor of ecosystem science and management, is an interdisciplinary program housed within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and works closely with the School of Energy Resources.

The WRRC and UW Extension sponsored three two-day Wyoming Regional Reclamation Schools—in Riverton, Gillette and Rock Springs—this past June.

The primary objective of these schools was to educate participants on how to conduct a pre-disturbance inventory of salvageable soils, native plants, weeds, and hydrology, as well as wildlife habitat and use. A secondary objective was to discuss how the inventoried information can be incorporated as components of construction and reclamation plans, such as soil salvage and stockpiling, site stabilization and erosion control, revegetation, and storm water runoff control and monitoring.

“We really try to make it hands-on and field-oriented,” says Jay Norton, who headed the Gillette reclamation school and is an associate professor and soil fertility specialist in UW’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. “My goal is to really give people the tools to conduct reclamation.”

A ­field assessment

For the June 19-20 Gillette workshop, a class of 10, composed of BLM officials and representatives of three oil and gas companies, joined a small contingent from UW to assess a staked two-acre parcel of rolling grass and sagebrush approximately 27 miles west of Gillette.

The tract served as a test site for a mock-proposed natural gas or oil well pad.

From the edge of the BLM public land, large grassy sections and numerous clumps of sagebrush were easily distinguishable, but from within the parcel details emerged. Brewer’s sparrows and lark bunting chirped from the underbrush. Sagebrush was distinguishable from silver sagebrush.  Scarlet globemallow and spiderwort provided spots of color.

In addition, prairie Junegrass, milkweed, bluegrass, sego lilies, cheatgrass (an exotic invasive species) and many other grass and forb species were spotted and recorded by participants.

“This property is so diverse,” says Calvin Strom, assistant director of the WRCC and a research scientist in UW’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Fifty feet that way, the sagebrush and grass are different than here.”

Participants broke into two groups and walked the undisturbed tract.  The groups circulated among stations that covered identifying and mapping soils suitable for salvage, creating an inventory of existing plant communities and weed prevention and control, planning for storm water runoff and erosion prevention, and wildlife habitat considerations.

During the soil mapping exercise, the groups dug soil pits and marked soil horizons by changes in soil color, structure, texture and hardness, with the goal to determine soil suitable for salvage.

“Nothing we’ve found in terms of soil would limit plant growth here,” Norton says as he surveys the windswept tract.

For the plant inventory, each group marked off 50 meters with a tape measure. On their first pass, the groups dropped a pointer to the ground at every meter (called a “line-point intercept”) and recorded what forb, grass or shrub was on that particular spot. During their second go-round, the groups counted forbs, flowers, sagebrush and other shrubs a meter out on either side of the tape measure.  This measuring method is called a “belt transect.”

“To me, reclamation is an art form,” says Brenda Schladweiler, a UW adjunct professor and owner of KS Environmental Associates Inc. in Gillette, who guided the groups during the plant exercise. “You have to be enough of a generalist to bring a lot of different factors together. But you have to be enough of a specialist to know which factors are most important for any given site.”

For example, before the group trekked out into the field, Schladweiler told participants to check sites for weeds prior to disturbance. If cheatgrass was present—which there was on the practice site—a suitable reclamation plan has been prepared for interim reclamation or plugged and abandoned for final reclamation.

“Think about your native plants. Take a pre-disturbance inventory,” says Kristina Hufford, a UW assistant professor of restoration ecology. “If you know what is out at your site, you will know what’s better to plant later on.”

Hufford adds that it’s helpful to look for a reference site nearby, one that is geographically close with similar soils, plants and topography.  Reference information will assist the practitioner when determining a seed mix during reclamation.

Being a wise sage

Chris Sheets, a wildlife biologist in Buffalo’s BLM office, says the workshop served as a great refresher. From his observations, the workshop site, like many other areas around the state, could contain sage grouse. He also says it contains sagebrush obligates (species that are restricted to sagebrush habitats during the breeding season or year-round), such as Brewer’s, sage and Vesper sparrows and the sage thrasher. In addition, taller sagebrush that sticks above the snowpack during the winter provides forage for antelope and mule deer.

“When I think of sagebrush, I’m not managing only for the species (sage grouse). I’m managing for the entire habitat,” says Sheets, a 2006 UW graduate in wildlife biology and management.

Sheets says that most of those he knows in the oil and gas industry have good intentions but may not necessarily understand the mitigation processes the way a professional wildlife biologist would.

In siting a well pad, Sheets advises placing the structure where it would have the least impact and still allow sage grouse to inhabit the area.

To cuts costs for the operator, he suggests making the well pad smaller, shortening roads that need to be built or using existing roads.

“Sage grouse are sensitive to development,” Norton says. “If they (oil and gas companies) can plan where they drill and where they put the pads and roads, that will make a real difference in the sage grouse population.”

The BLM, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other agencies are currently participating in a plan to restore sage grouse habitat in the Powder River Basin, particularly on sites with abandoned gas wells.

Buster Ivory, a regulatory agent with the Gillette office of Yates Petroleum Corp., says his primary job is to obtain drilling permits for his company and be in compliance with those permits. To do so, Ivory works with the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the State Engineer’s Office and the Department of Environmental Quality.

“More than anything else, you can get people’s different takes that can help you have a successful reclamation,” says Ivory, a 1997 UW graduate with a degree in geology. “The plant identification was fun. I hadn’t done that in a while. I could identify a dozen plant species before this. We must have had 25 to 30 (plant species) we identified today.”

The WRRC began offering the reclamation schools last year, with 2012 workshops taking place in Buffalo, Laramie and Rock Springs.  The two-day schools grew out of Reclamation 101 and 201 classes that were originally offered but included only classroom instruction.

“We did an evaluation and people said they wanted more hands-on training,” Norton explains. “Last year, we went to this format and had participants come up with a reclamation plan.”

“A lot of people really like to come out here and get their hands dirty,” Strom adds.

This year’s reclamation schools came on the heels of UW hosting more than 320 individuals for the second Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Symposium and the 30th annual meeting of the American Society of Mining and Reclamation (ASMR).  The conference took place June 1-7 at the UW Conference Center at Laramie’s Hilton Garden Inn.

“The state of the art in reclamation science is on display in Wyoming daily,” Gov. Matt Mead said during his opening-day conference address.  “The quality of reclamation shown in Wyoming’s mining industry sets the global standard.”

The governor’s state energy strategy, released in May, outlines the importance and interrelationship of energy production, environmental stewardship and the economy. Part of the strategy emphasizes specific initiatives to develop conservation for wildlife and habitat, reclamation standards for disturbed areas and baselines for measuring current conditions and trends.

“Development of resources is not synonymous with ruin,” Mead said. “Through the application of the right reclamation science, in the right places and at the right time, a net increase in overall natural resource conditions is possible, has been proven and should be expected.”

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