Every year, fracking for natural gas and oil moves closer to national park boundaries, posing threats to park wildlife that science is only beginning to understand.
From the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park in Montana, visitors can throw a stone and hit any of 16 exploratory wells and associated holding tanks, pump jacks, and machinery used to force millions of gallons of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into shale rock formations thousands of feet beneath the surface. More than one-third of the more than 400 U.S. national park units lie either directly above or within 25 surface miles of shale basins, meaning that wildlife in dozens of national parks could be impacted, including Channel Islands, Santa Monica Mountains, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, New River Gorge, Mammoth Cave, and Delaware Water Gap. The profusion of rigs, roads, and machinery so close to national park landscapes is troublesome for these parks and for the diversity of life within them.
The research carried out so far—outlined in the four categories below—shows clear impacts on the land, water, and air that wildlife depend on.
1. Habitat Fragmentation
Animals do not know when they leave national park boundaries. Wells and machinery on nearby land can physically block and break up the habitat that wildlife needs for survival.
Research has found that the impacts from even a single well pad and road can be dramatic, from the reduction of intact forest—by 22 percent in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region—to changing the balance of species in the region, resulting in the loss of native plants and animals and the rise of invasive weed species.
Western landscapes have been especially hard hit. More than 85% of the once dominant sagebrush steppe habitat, which supports 100 bird and 70 mammal species in Wyoming alone, has been lost. And for the pronghorns that migrate into Grand Teton National Park, energy equipment and roads literally block established migration routes.
2. Water Quality
About 20 to 40 percent of the water injected into a fracked well belches back to the surface during drilling and production. These fluids, known as flow back liquids, contain chemicals, lubricants, and naturally occurring pollutants such as salts, radium, and barium. As a result, wastewater generated by hydraulic fracturing can be a dangerous brew with few effective options for disposal or treatment.
In some production areas, companies have trucked wastewater off-site to municipal treatment facilities, but these facilities aren’t equipped to remove some pollutants, and the treated water they discharge can remain high in compounds known to kill fish, corrode metal, and contribute to the excessive growth of certain algae (which in turn can lead to more fish kills). In some places, facilities discharge contaminated wastewater great distances from the original well sites, making fracking’s environmental consequences even more far-reaching.
Fracking may also contaminate groundwater. Duke University researchers believe natural fissures between layers of rock and groundwater could let toxic fluids rise to the surface, where they may pollute water used by people or wildlife. Cattle exposed to fracking fluids suffered serious reproductive problems and, in some cases, death. The implications for wildlife—and people—are ominous.
3. Water Quantity
Fracking operations do not affect water quality alone—they also remove great quantities of water from places that cannot spare it. Fracking a single gas or oil well requires millions of gallons of water. Many thousands of wells have already been drilled, and demand is growing.
NPCA’s Center for Park Research analyzed the impacts of reduced water flows on native fishes and natural river processes in national parks along the Colorado River in a 2011 report. These impacts include declines in native fish populations and changes in plant populations on stream banks.
Aquatic habitats on the Eastern seaboard could be in particular jeopardy. Fracking in Pennsylvania, New York, or New Jersey would reduce the amount of water flowing through the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, potentially harming the federally protected dwarf wedgemussel in the river. Development could also have consequences for the Susquehanna, the area’s largest river.
4. Noise and Air Pollution
Air compressors, industrial traffic, and other noises associated with fracking can alter the behavior of wildlife. In northwestern New Mexico, a research team found lower species diversity within bird communities in noisy areas than in quiet control areas nearby—in some cases even affecting the plants those birds help pollinate. A second study in New Mexico revealed that persistent noise from compressors altered mice and bird communities and hampered the dispersal of piñon pine seeds.
Air pollution produced by fracking may also affect animals. A long-term Colorado-based study found that extended exposure to air pollutants from natural gas fracking could cause health problems such as neurological and respiratory ailments and cancer. The researchers collected air samples every six days for nearly three years within 500 feet of active well pads. Their analysis identified two to three dozen kinds of airborne hydrocarbons that are produced during fracking and pumping of natural gas.
In northeastern Utah’s Uintah Basin, near Dinosaur National Monument, 10,000 oil and gas wells, some of them hydraulically fractured, created ozone levels that were worse than those of New York City.
If these impacts on air quality have the potential to harm human visitors to these national parks, what are the effects on wildlife species that live in the parks year-round?
Scientists must conduct additional research to fully understand the many impacts of fracking on wildlife, but we should not wait to take preventative steps to minimize the harm.
Understanding the life cycles and movements of wildlife species before beginning gas and oil exploitation could reduce the negative impacts of energy development on national park wildlife. Companies should directly engage the National Park Service during the planning and implementation processes to put best practices into place and place sensitive areas off-limits, if needed.
The animals in America’s national parks include some of our country’s most iconic and treasured species. We should treat them with respect, plan carefully, and enact widely available pollution controls. From the tiny dwarf wedgemussel to the mighty American bison, we have too much at stake to get it wrong.
Read NPCA’s report, National Parks and Hydraulic Fracturing, with five in-depth case studies on the effects of fracking on national parks.
About the author
James D. Nations Former Director of NPCA's Center for Park Research
Trained as an ecological anthropologist, Dr. James D. Nations has spent the past 25 years working for the protection of natural ecosystems and cultural heritage in the tropics and the United States. Before joining the National Parks Conservation Association as head of the Center for Park Research, James worked 13 years with Conservation International, serving as Vice President for Mexico and Central America, Vice President for Latin America, and Vice President for Development Agency Relations.