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Reclaimed sites in the Jonah Field show promising insect populations 

Michael Curran
A natural gas well pad which was reclaimed with a native seed mix next to a sea of sagebrush. The purple flower is the native annual species, Rocky Mountain bee plant.

Vegetation and insects are doing relatively well out in the Jonah Field in Sublette County, according to new research funded by the University of Wyoming.

Researchers looked at 12 well pads undergoing reclamation in the Jonah Field, which is where much of Wyoming’s natural gas industry boomed in the early 2000s. The well pads were planted with native grass and flower seed mixes between 2014 and 2016.

The study found insects are faring well on these restored sites. In fact, the insects occurred three to 22 times more compared to other, similar landscaped areas not disturbed by oil and gas operations.

Mike Curran, the lead researcher, said disturbance and reclamation are akin to what happens to land after a fire.

“What you're seeing on these well pads would be what you'd see after a wildfire or event like that, that knocks back some of that old, kind of decadent, really woody sagebrush and allows for these kind of early vegetation communities to come in,” Curran said.

Knocking back that old growth and allowing for new, young vegetation can support insects' health and diversity.

Michael Curran
A pollinator visits a Rocky Mountain bee plant flower on a reclaimed natural gas well pad in the Jonah Field.

“Insects are oftentimes critical indicators of ecosystem functionality and kind of the building block for terrestrial food webs,” he said.

Species like the greater sage grouse depend on insects found in these environments. This is notable, because the greater sage grouse population has declined by about 80 percent since 1965, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has cited oil and gas development as having an adverse impact on sage grouse and other wildlife.

Curran’s research showed similar results to a previous study he conducted looking at insect and vegetation health on reclaimed sites in the Pinedale Anticline Natural Gas Field, which spans about 198,000 acres in west-central Wyoming.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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