STATE GAME LAND 59, Pa. » For those who have ever stalked deer, turkey and bear here in "God’s Country" in north central Pennsylvania, this hunting season is like no other.
For one thing, it is louder. The soundtrack of birds chirping, thorns scraping against a hunter’s brush pants and twigs crunching underfoot is now accompanied by the dull roar of compressor stations and the chugging of big trucks up these hills.
The Marcellus Shale, a vast reserve of natural gas lies beneath some of this state’s most prized game lands. And now, more and more drills are piercing the hunting grounds. Nine wells have cropped up on this one game land of roughly 7,000 wooded acres in Potter County, and permits have been issued for 19 more.
An old dirt road that meandered up a ridge here has been widened and fortified. Acres of aspen, maple and cherry trees have been cut. In their place is an industrial encampment of rigs, pipes and water-storage ponds, all to support the extraction of natural gas through the process of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.
"Who wants to go into their deer stand in the predawn darkness and listen to a compressor station?" lamented Bob Volkmar, 63, an environmental scientist who went grouse hunting the other day through these noisy autumnal woods. "It kind of ruins the experience."
Like many hunters, Volkmar is upset that the State Game Commission is giving over more public land to the gas companies, which is not exactly fulfilling its mission to enhance the hunting experience. The game lands, as he points out, were bought with the proceeds from licenses and fees paid by hunters and trappers.
Carl Roe, the executive director of the game commission, acknowledges that drilling "does look ugly" but said that on most well sites, the agency had no control over drilling-related activities. Although the agency owns 1.4 million acres of game lands, it does not always own the mineral rights beneath them, so their private owners can lease them out to the gas companies — the case with Game Land 59. Where the agency owns the mineral rights, it can and does restrict drilling and construction on certain days during hunting season.
Roe also said the agency offsets the losses, which are temporary, by using money from the gas leases to purchase more game lands; it just bought a major tract of more than 9,000 acres.
"In the long run," he said, "this will be a net gain for hunters, not a net loss."
Still, the commission had to warn hunters late last month to pre-scout their favorite spots in part because a "dramatic increase in drilling" due to interest in the Marcellus Shale had disrupted traditional hunting and trapping areas.
In 2008, the game commission received $556,000 in lease payments for Marcellus wells on game lands; by the end of this year, it expects to have received more than $18 million. About 50 Marcellus wells have been drilled on game lands across the state, with permits issued for 148 more.
The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, representing the industry, and the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, which supports the drilling, plan to issue their own advisory.
"We don’t want hunters to use our tanks for target practice or to sit on top of them," said Louis D’Amico, president and executive director of the gas association, which issued a similar statement last year. "We want them to be especially careful during bear and deer season, because of the long reach of their rifles."
Just as fracking has divided other groups of like-minded people, the decision to allow it on game lands has divided sportsmen, too.
Volkmar’s hunting buddy, Tony Winters, 59, a former conservation officer, shrugged off the drilling, saying that these lands had been cleared before by lumber companies and that clearing them now for wells will actually improve the hunting.
Winters pointed out that clear-cutting of trees leads to forest regeneration. It also creates more "edge," the open borders around the woods. Generally more edge attracts more animals, like deer, which do not like denser forest.
As a compressor station hummed in the background, Winters said he was not bothered by the noise and that animals would not perceive it as a threat. He said there was enough land to accommodate both hunters and drillers.
Margaret Brittingham, a professor of wildlife resources at Penn State, said the full effects of the wells on the flora and fauna were not yet clear and that she was beginning to study them.
Brittingham expects that some wildlife populations, like deer, are likely to increase after the drillers leave but that songbirds, salamanders, frogs and other amphibians that help maintain a forest’s ecological balance are likely to decline.
"You can see these changes on a really local level now," she said. "But it will take time to see changes in the larger populations."
She said she was skeptical that this new "edge" would be helpful, saying "it’s more like a parking lot." But she said such problems could be minimized if the lands were properly re-seeded and reclaimed once the gas companies pulled up stakes.
Still, she said, "all the truck traffic is bad for wildlife."
Human traffic can be a problem, too. During hunting season, the commission has banned seismic surveying (a labor-intensive process that uses waves to measure the earth’s properties and find the right place to drill).
"They have several crews going in several different directions, so a hunter can’t get out of the way," said Michael DiMatteo, chief of environmental planning and habitat protection for the commission.
Volkmar and Winters are also fishermen and both are members of Trout Unlimited, which started a coalition last year of a dozen outdoor-recreation and wildlife groups, called the Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Conservation. It is not opposed to drilling but seeks better regulations, including erosion-control measures and set-back requirements.
They take regular samples from local streams to monitor any changes in water quality. They both say that fracking, which involves injecting huge volumes of water, sand and treated chemicals deep into the gas bed, could lead to water pollution and fish kills.
So far, no one has found water problems in this immediate area. But others have detected contamination elsewhere in the state, including a fish kill that some attributed to the disposal of fracking waste. The industry maintains that fracking itself is safe and that any problems have been caused by spills or leaks.
The Environmental Protection Agency is set to begin a federal investigation into whether fracking is spoiling the drinking water in various drilling states, including Pennsylvania.
As for spoiling the land,
Bill Ragosta, a wildlife conservation officer for the game commission on Game Land 59, said that the amount of surface disturbance here was not typical.
"Fortunately most of our game lands are not being bombarded like this," Ragosta said. But even here, he promised, the drilling would soon end and re-seeding with alfalfa, chicory and clover would bring more deer.
"It seems counterintuitive, especially to people who are opposed to drilling," he said. "I don’t know if it’s better or worse for wildlife in the long run, but it’s not fair to say it’s all black or all white."