BRADFORD, Pennsylvania — Nearly seven years into Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale drilling boom, wildlife officials say the state's elk population continues to flourish despite concerns about industrial footprints, wildlife displacement and habitat degradation.
"It hasn't disturbed any habitat, in fact, it probably creates more than there was to begin with," said Pennsylvania Game Commission elk biologist Jeremy Banfield, referencing companies who cover defunct well pads with grass, prime elk habitat.
The elk population has nearly doubled since 2008, when the state's Marcellus Shale drilling boom began, rising from 500 to more than 880 and increasing every year. The number is expected to reach 1,000 in 2015.
But there exists a lack of data indicating how natural gas activity has displaced the animals, and to what extent.
The question is increasingly relevant as Elk, McKean and Cameron counties — the heart of the elk range — undergoes a natural gas awakening led, in part, by Houston-based Seneca Resources Corp., complete with planned well pads and pipelines.
As the infrastructure comes online, disturbances are unavoidable.
Construction and initial phases of production often entail loud machinery, round-the-clock lighting, and high volumes of truck traffic.
But Banfield said, "Once the machinery is in place, the elk adapt quickly ... It doesn't seem to bother them."
Afterward, if well sites are restored Banfield said habitat is improved, calling the drilling process in some cases a short-term harm resulting in long-term gains.
But a University of Vermont study found only six percent of wells undergo restoration, with companies not required to complete full restoration until drilling is done and many waiting on the chance that additional wells may be drilled or an existing well re-fracked to improve gas production.
The study's authors say in most cases final restoration may be 40 or 50 years away or as long as there is an active well on the pad, meaning a direct and generational loss of habitat for wildlife.
In Elk County, home to the densest pockets of elk herd members, Seneca spokesperson Rob Boulware said the company is committed to wellsite restoration, adding, "We are work(ing) with surface owners such as the PGC, DCNR and Forest Service to restore surface lands in a manner that best meets their needs."
Boulware said the company consults with preservation groups to purchase or plant seed mixes that help Ruffed Grouse and wild turkey populations.
He said "shale gas companies have helped to greatly expand" the fundraising efforts of Keystone Elk Country Alliance, a Benezette-based conservation group focused on the local elk population.
Seneca, Boulware said, remains committed to "limit(ing) impacts and improv(ing) surface areas after drilling there and elsewhere."
Much of the drilling locally will take place on state game lands where the elk have existed for more than a hundred years, part of a Game Commission project to reintroduce them locally after the animals were hunted to extinction in Pennsylvania.
Approximately 1.5 million acres of the 2.2 million-acre state forest system sit over Marcellus and other shale gas formations, according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the agency had already leased 139,000 acres of forest for drilling by 2010.
A DCNR monitoring report released this year found that if nearly 1,500 acres of forest had been converted into well pads, roads and pipelines for shale gas development, changing the wild character of 9,300 acres of state forest.
After being focused mostly in the eastern part of the state, that activity is moving westward, toward the elk range as companies like Seneca, drawn by lower overhead and rapidly developing pipeline infrastructure.
State Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, said "significant natural gas activity" is taking place in the Clermont area of McKean County as well as Cameron and Potter counties and believes the elk in the area are adequately protected.
"I don't think there's been any impact on the elk herd. It has grown significantly and much of the work done by natural gas companies has provided habitat for elk and deer," Causer said, pointing to the same restoration efforts referenced by game commission and gas companies alike.
"In fact, you could argue it has been beneficial," Causer added.
While the elk range comprises a portion of Causer's district, it comprises a key swath of state Rep. Matt Gabler, R-DuBois', 75th Legislative District.
In Harrisburg, Gabler has lobbied extensively for measures to accentuate the elk herd as a local economic and tourism linchpin.
"It's a unique identifier for our area," Gabler said. "When I talk to folks across Pennsylvania, people know we're the home of the elk herd and home of PA Wilds. It's part of the core identify of our culture as an outdoor paradise and in part, our heritage."
Gabler said the possibility of an uptick in natural gas activity driving the herd away from designated viewing areas, and a dependent tourism industry in Benezette, is at this point only a possibility and said local tourism and conservation groups have raised no concerns to him about the prospect.
But Gabler will continue to gauge the issue, vowing to "stay in touch with groups in the best position to know that and raise alarm if that's the case."
"But, at this point (natural gas) development, how we regulate it, and how it has advanced has not generated any negative feedback from stakeholders and conservation partners."
So far, Gabler said natural gas activity has actually been beneficial to management of the animals and minimizing unwanted elk encounters with humans. The hope is that creation of ideal habitat at remote, shuttered drill sites may help to draw the animals away from residential areas, thereby limiting their involvement in traffic accidents and property damage.
"A mature forest is poor habitat," Gabler said. "It's early succession growth and rotational food plots that provide enhancements to habitat."
Elk County Commissioner Dan Freeburg said "besides property owner and traffic inconveniences and occasional traffic hazards ... the elk herd popularity has decidedly had a positive impact on the economy, reaching out from the core area into St. Marys, DuBois and all around."
Freeburg said the gas industry, too, has benefited municipalities through Act 13 impact fee payments and local economies through trickle-down economics.
Those impacts are expected to increase within the elk range in the coming months and years as companies begin aggressively investing here.
As that investment continues and heightens, those like Banfield and Gabler will be paying close attention.
Banfield said studying the impact will require costly tracking equipment to record the animals' movements and long-term migrations which the Game Commission currently lacks.
But for now he says, "There's not a lack of space now and there's plenty of grass."
Information from: The Bradford Era, http://www.bradfordera.com