What some have billed as a collision of worlds has turned out to be more of a glancing blow, as thousands of hunters fanned out across the region recently amid a spike in natural gas drilling and uncertainty about the overlap.
In the local four-county area, hundreds of Marcellus Shale well sites dot the landscape now, with likely thousands of acres newly converted to industrial space or roadways as companies, lured here by lower overhead and developing pipeline infrastructure, begin ramping up operations.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) records indicate that Elk County is home to 59 active Marcellus Shale wells, up from just seven between 2007 and 2010. In that same time, McKean County well sites jumped from 10 to 66; Cameron County from nine to 13; and Potter County from 2 to 82.
The increased presence has prompted some residential resistance, attempts at municipal zoning revisions and new concern from hunters worried wilderness development could threaten deer populations, and in turn, their pastime.
“Some lands that we used to be able to hunt on we can’t go on now — a lot of new stuff is posted,” said Art Morelli, treasurer of the Fox Township Sportsmen’s Club in Elk County.
Fox Township is home to 11 of Elk County’s 59 active wells, according to DEP records.
As Morelli put it, “we’ve seen quite a bit of drilling here. The truck traffic has increased tremendously, between water trucks and rigs hauling in the derricks. It is what is. It’s not going to go away and people are more or less willing to put up with it.”
Statewide, some sportsmen’s groups have raised concerns about stomping grounds rendered unrecognizable by Marcellus Shale development, and others about the potential for deer meat contaminated by animals consuming toxic fracking flowback.
In Fox Township, Supervisor Mike Keller believes Marcellus Shale production has had little effect on hunting there so far, but said it could if “even half of the wells (currently) permitted in the area were drilled.”
Those like Morelli say there still exists plenty of opportunity to hunt away from well sites, adding complaints this year are more likely to center on an apparent scarcity of the animals than industrial encroachment.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is adamant the deer population remains “stable” in the area. State Wildlife Management Unit “2H,” encompassing portions of Elk, McKean, Cameron and Potter counties, boasts more than 16,000 deer and 5,500 licensed hunters, with roughly 1,500 bucks harvested each year since 2009.
Game Commission spokesperson Travis Lau said post-hunt population estimates in the unit have ranged from 19,730 deer in 2009 to 16,537 last year, after dipping to 11,565 deer in 2010 and 13,917 in 2012.
It is expected this year’s numbers will be available by February.
Regardless of the totals, gas drilling is unlikely to be tied to any potential population loss.
“Deer regularly adapt and tolerate high levels of predictable human activities,” said Game Commission biologist Chris Rosenberry. “Deer may shift their use of a home range, but rarely will human disturbance cause them to leave their home range.”
Hunters said they’re adjusting, too.
For some an industrial presence in the wilds is, simply put, unnatural.
Keller isn’t necessarily one of them, but said he understands the notion. He recalls hunting grounds, this year, overrun by activity and spillover noise from nearby drilling operations.
“It’s nice to be out in the woods, the dead quiet and calm, it’s a wonderful experience, if you can have it,” he said, adding, “but you can still have it in the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) if you want to get away from most noises of the world.”
Meanwhile, in Potter County, Ed Fisher of the L.E.E.K. Hunting and Mountain Preserve — a volunteer-run facility offering outdoor programs to wounded military veterans — said there has been “zero impact,” from Marcellus Shale drilling on the program.
“We hunt on 32,000 acres here in Potter County and the only inconvenience we’ve ever noticed is getting behind a water truck. Other than that there has been no impact,” Fisher said.
Meanwhile, Jerry Goetz of the St. Marys Sportsmen’s Club said drilling on abutting state game lands “hasn’t interfered with anything we do,” adding, “even with pheasants, there’s been no difference. Everything seems to be pretty normal.”
Goetz acknowledged the club receives royalty payments on four shallow wells belonging to Houston-based Seneca Resources Corp. and located on club property. The payments were confirmed by Seneca, but the amount undisclosed.
In fact, regionally Marcellus Shale money seems to be nearly as pervasive as the industry itself.
Companies are quick to point out the combined millions in state imposed natural gas drilling, or Act 13 impact fees, paid to area municipalities, while also touting the potential economic benefits of industry spending on hospitality, housing and retail services.
The Game Commission remains one of the largest beneficiaries, earning millions — by some estimates billions — through natural gas leases on state game lands.
Lau said funds contributed by drillers go toward the Game Commission’s purchases of other game lands, adding, “we look at it as a plus for hunters rather than a minus.”
Additionally, Lau said any disturbances experienced by hunters are likely only temporary.
“Some hunters’ hunting spots are now going to be taken up by a well-pad and they’ll be unable to get to them, but as soon as at all practical we extend and open up the hunting opportunities to the fullest extent possible in all of those areas,” Lau said.
For her part, Christina Novak, press secretary with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), said district foresters in the area report no complaints from hunters related to gas activity.
Some have surely noticed new signs instructing them to “Identify your target,” and “Watch where your bullet goes.”
Marcellus Shale drilling rigs continue to run full-time and full-throttle, even during deer season. Seneca Resources Corp., one of the larger area operators, said it works with the Game Commission and the DCNR to set road limitations on the movement of heavy equipment, helping it “avoid potential conflicts on state roads during times of high public use.”
Back at the Fox Township Sportsmen’s Club, Art Morelli says of drilling, a greater threat to hunting exists in a younger generation less apt to pick it up.
“The younger generation is not as into hunting,” Morelli said, adding, “there are fewer and fewer hunters now. You don’t see guys like you used to.”