Former Tahoe resident makes wildlife news | SierraSun.com

Former Tahoe resident makes wildlife news

David Bunker
Sierra Sun

Courtesy of UM wildlife biology professor Dave NauBrett Walker plans to finish his doctorate and continue research on sage grouse in Montana.

From the pages of national newspapers to environmental magazines, the research of Brett Walker, whose family has owned a home on Tahoe’s West Shore since the 1920s, is garnering nationwide attention.

Walker’s research on how methane mining is contributing to the death of sage grouse on the plains of Wyoming and Montana has the Bureau of Land Management rethinking how it deals with mining companies.

Using radio collars to track sage grouse, many of Walker’s days studying for his doctorate have been spent on the sage brush of Montana’s Powder River Basin that is dotted with methane drill sites.

What Walker and other members of the research team have found is not heartening for the sage grouse, a species that certain environmental groups have lobbied for inclusion onto the Endangered Species List.

“The sage grouse populations are in trouble in gas fields,” Walker said.

Because of the mining, the normally arid plains of southern Montana now feature ponds and pools holding the watery by-product of methane extraction from coal beds.

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The water, however, has bred a grouse killer, researchers have found. West Nile Virus-infected mosquitos buzz across grouse habitat where before they could not survive.

The virus has killed some of the birds, but other mysterious factors are at work, leading to a decline of 45 percent to 80 percent in grouse populations in the Powder River Basin, according to university professor David Naugle’s statements in Audubon Magazine.

“It’s such a dramatic decline it is a concern,” Walker said.

Walker suspects power lines associated with mining may attract more birds of prey than normal. Roads and other human disturbances may lead to grouse avoiding entire sections of what was previously their habitat, but has now become methane mining fields.

In some cases, the birds, known for their intricate spring mating dances, have avoided methane drilling areas altogether, said Walker.

While methane mining has grown explosively in Montana and Wyoming recently, opposition has also mounted.

Apart from the damage to sage grouse, the mineral-heavy water that comes from deep underground is affecting waterways and concerning neighbors, according to United States Geological Survey documents. The drilling is also depleting local aquifers, the documents said.

On Tahoe’s west shore, Brett’s dad, John Walker, is proud of his son’s work.

The thing that is making his son happy is the fact that his research is spurring changes in how the BLM administers contracts for the methane mining on their land, said John Walker.

“He’s just thrilled about the [changes],” said John Walker.

According to Brett Walker, those changes include designing pond areas that will not support the spread of West Nile Virus.

“The [BLM] is definitely concerned about the effects of natural gas mining,” Brett Walker said. “There is already quite a bit of talk about designing the ponds in a way so that mosquitos don’t breed.”

Despite the temptation to return to his childhood home at Lake Tahoe, Brett Walker said he plans to finish his doctorate and continue his research in Montana.