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Jonah Energy recognized for its land restoration in southwest Wyoming, home to the dwindling sage grouse

Sagebrush and a reclaimed area with purple flowers on a blue sky day.
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.

A natural gas operation in southwest Wyoming has long been heralded as a top producer in the country. But now industry leaders are saying it’s also top of the line for restoring the land.

Jonah Energy is being recognized with a national Distinction in Reclamation Award from the American Society of Reclamation Sciences, an international advisory group in the energy world. This is the first time an oil or gas company has received this award, which is the highest accolade of its kind.

Jonah Energy operates the Jonah Field, just south of Pinedale. That field was regarded as “one of the most significant natural gas developments in continental North America in the second half of the twentieth century,” according to the Wyoming Historical Society. But all of that energy development can take a big toll on the quality of the land, so restoring impacted areas is key. Jonah Energy’s Vice President Paul Ulrich said it took years of trial and error.

“One of our earlier spectacular failures was the use of water,” Ulrich said. “But when you water a species that is very, very drought tolerant, as everything in the high plains is, what you end up with is a very short, stunted root system that doesn't allow for long term success.”

The vegetation is drought tolerant because the Jonah Field is in a high elevation desert that sees very little precipitation or frost free days. Just growing a small backyard garden in this environment is a challenge, let alone on 7,300 acres, which is how much land has been disturbed by the company’s operations.

It’s taken lots of research and partnerships, like with the University of Wyoming, to “crack the code” on how to restore the land, Ulrich said.

And what they’ve found that works? Better understanding the seasons and weather patterns, as well as using a seed mix, like the Rocky Mountain bee plant, Lewis flax and western yarrow, that thrives in the ecosystem.

Ulrich added that it’s not a one size fits all situation.

“We approach each location individually. That allows us to really fine tune our program for each and every one disturbance we have in a field versus a blanket approach,” he said. “We really treat each location as its own, based on elevation, topography, use, soil type, etc.”

Ulrich said the results speak for themselves. Data show that plant diversity has gone up by 77 percent compared to neighboring undisturbed areas, and herbaceous plant production went up by about 40 percent.

Those numbers are especially important in this area because numerous wildlife species depend on the landscape, including sage grouse. The bird’s populations continue to decline and many say that’s because of a loss of habitat. Keeping that habitat intact and flush with native vegetation is crucial for sage grouse recovery efforts.

Helping with that is ecologist Michael Curran, whose consulting company specializes in land reclamation and works with Jonah Energy. He’s spent many days out in Wyoming’s desolate sagebrush landscape.

“Out of all the states in the lower 48, I think you can make a really good argument that Wyoming is the most difficult to do good reclamation in,” Curran said. “We're just getting low and unpredictable precipitation, we don't have really well developed soils, we have high elevations – a lot of just environmental challenges from the harsh climatic conditions out there.”

Curran, who the Society also awarded with an Early Career Award, said good reclamation needs to be a part of any energy operation. He added that Jonah Energy receiving this award sets the tone for the future of energy in Wyoming.

“If we're going to extract this resource or build this pipeline, or even put a solar farm in or a wind farm, that our disturbances aren't going to result in cheatgrass and we're going to see ecosystems functioning again,” Curran said.

The awards will be presented at the Society’s conference in June in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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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