February 2010 - Preserving Wyoming's Fortification Creek

Feb 22, 2010

Looking at the prog charts (aeronautical weather data) looked like a can of worms both literally and figuratively. A quick moving cold front had just dumped up to 4 feet of snow in the Northern Rockies and in Cody and Sheridan, Wyoming.

powder river basin WY

Powder River Basin, Wyoming. (c) Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight 2009.


A transition from fall 55-degree temperatures plummeted overnight to a wintry 35. We delayed our flight one day to "thread the needle" between storms and our flight north from Colorado was beautiful with clear skies and a tailwind. The landscape quickly turned from the brilliant fall colors of gold and red to a winter wonderland with peaks shining with newly fallen snow and lakes beginning to ice up.

Our mission was to fly the media over the Fortification Creek area in the Powder River Basin in northeastern Wyoming. Containing a 12,000 acre Wilderness Study Area, Fortification Creek is known for its steep terrain, deep washes and highly erosive arid soils. The terrain reminds you of the maze formations in Utah in clay and not sandstone. It is home to a number of wildlife species including a prized elk herd that uses the area as their only habitat. But underneath the region's 123,000 acres lies a significant natural gas field and this fragile landscape and the rare plains elk herd that live here are under increasing threat from coal bed methane (CBM) drilling.

We flew press and photographers over the region and were able to show the incredible ruggedness of the area as well as the Wilderness Study Area's proximity to a vast network of CBM wells and the associated road systems affecting the elk herds in the region.

The Bureau of Land Management has issued permits for four coal bed methane projects entirely within the Fortification Creek elk herd's yearlong range which will result in a total of just under 250 CBM wells.

The BLM has said it has already conducted a study and concluded the elk would not be significantly harmed by the CBM drilling. But that determination has come under fire from conservation groups. It ignores research from radio-collared Fortification elk showing that effective loss of habitat extends well beyond the physical disturbance and activity associated with gas development - up to 1.7 miles.

The next day we watched our "can of worms" on the prog charts march steadily towards us and no matter how many times we checked weather.com and our aviation weather, our flying prognosis did not look good. The lines on the weather maps finally became a reality and we skedaddled - threading the needle back to the blue skies of Colorado.