Categorized | Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands

Defenders fights coal to protect wildlife and the Powder River Basin

Thunder Basin National Grassland

The Thunder Basin National Grassland (photo from the U.S. Forest Service)

There are many environmental impacts from coal production and use, from safety threats to miners, to the landscape-level impacts of mountaintop removal and strip mining, to the resulting carbon emissions that cause global climate change.  Wildlife is one of them.

Coal mining occurs on our public lands throughout the country, especially in the West.  Some mines literally consume thousands of acres of land and require a great deal of infrastructure and resource consumption (especially and most notably, water).  These land uses destroy habitat, kill individual plants and animals, drive away local populations of wildlife, and force wildlife to compete with each other for less space and less food.  These mines also create huge barriers between areas of healthy habitat, leading to a loss of connectivity that prevents wildlife from moving through the landscape in search of food and mates.

Unfortunately, even as the public and Defenders urge our leaders toward a clean energy future, the threat of mining is far from over.  Secretary Salazar recently announced that the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management would seek to expand coal leasing in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana with the addition of at least 2.35 billion tons of coal available for mining.

As part of our ongoing work on coal mining in the Powder River Basin, Defenders recently worked with a  coalition of local, regional, and national groups to develop comments on several large coal leases that will have large-scale impacts on the Thunder Basin National Grassland (TBNG).  These leases—collectively called the “Wright Area Coal Lease”—would result in the strip mining and otherwise degradation or destruction of more than 29,000 acres, 11,677 of which are on the TBNG.  The areas at risk, though close to coal mines that have already been developed, support a thriving grassland ecosystem, home to species like prairie dogs, mule deer, antelope, mountain plover, sage-grouse, and various raptors.  Sagebrush and grassland ecosystems like this are incredibly sensitive and can take hundreds of years to recover from disturbance, sometimes failing to ever reach their original state again—an unfortunate reality acknowledged by the agencies analyzing this lease.

Defenders’ contribution to the coalition comments on the leases focused on the need for the Forest Service (the agency in charge of our National Grasslands, in addition to National Forests) to follow its own policy to protect wildlife.  This policy requires the Forest Service to “[e]nsure that exploration, development, and production of mineral and energy resources are conducted in an environmentally sound manner and that these activities are integrated with the planning and management of other National Forest resources.”  This is a lofty challenge for coal mining operations that can have devastating and wide-ranging environmental effects.   Accordingly, complying with this policy would require the Forest Service either to reject the lease outright or at the very least to place limits on the lease, called stipulations, which require developers to take precautions and avoid damaging environmental resources.  Specific stipulations we requested for the Wright Area leases include avoiding sensitive species habitat and limiting activities during seasons when animals are breeding or migrating.

You can learn more from our Federal Lands program and our partners at the Powder River Basin Resource Council and WildEarth Guardians.

This post was written by:

- who has written 13 posts on dotWild.

Addie Haughey is the Federal Lands Associate for Defenders of Wildlife. Addie works within Defenders’ Federal Lands Program in Washington, DC to advocate for wildlife on our National Forests and on other public lands.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.