TCS Daily

Wildlife Enrichment and Oil Exploration a 2-for-1 Deal at the Welder Wildlife Refuge

By Michael De Alessi - May 15, 2001 12:00 AM

For landowners and conservation groups intimately involved with the environment, every day is Earth Day. For many others, however, this year's version added a bonus chance to lament the new Administration's 'anti-environment' agenda. One of the most egregious parts of this agenda, we've been told, is the push to drill for oil in the Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and on other public lands.

Yet, anyone who thinks that oil and wildlife cannot mix has surely never visited the Rob and Bessie Welder Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, Texas. This 7,800-acre refuge was formed in 1954 at the bequest of Rob Welder, a Texas rancher whose family first obtained the land in a grant from the King of Spain and who obtained his fortune from oil. Mr. Welder had a passion for wildlife, and set up the private, non-profit Foundation to demonstrate the compatibility of ranching with habitat conservation and to foster continued research projects on wildlife management. According to the folks at Welder, "no other organization has dedicated itself solely to conducting wildlife research in the midst of a ranching operation and an active oil field."

And so the refuge today remains a working cattle ranch with operating oilfields and a healthy array of wildlife ranging from bobcats to bobwhites and tremendous wintering populations of waterfowl and shorebirds. One reason for the diversity of wildlife at Welder is that it literally sits at a biological crossroads. It is the northern limit for many tropical birds and the southern limit for many temperate birds, and it also lies in a transition zone between the Gulf Prairies and Marshes and the Rio Grande Plains.

Welder also actively enhances wildlife habitat - nesting boxes for black whistling ducks have been used for the last 25 years (during which there has been a tenfold increase in their population). Five hundred acres of wetlands have been both created and enhanced. There has also been a stable population of about 1,000 deer on the property for over 35 years.

According to Welder's Director, Lynn Drawe, one of the aims of the Foundation is to demonstrate to other Texas ranchers just how strong their property rights are when it comes to oil exploration on their land - meaning that they can ensure environmentally sensitive production. Welder contracts with the operator to put a deposit down for clean up and to agree to all sorts of other conditions such as carrying all mud off the property and building high levees and low ditches around the pad (for emergency spillage).

The wildlife refuge has had as many as 25 producing wells on the property, but in recent years that number has slowly dwindled to three or four, due in part to fluctuations in the price of oil, but also to rapid changes in technology. Advances in slant drilling, for example, allow fewer pads to access a wider area. Once a drilling pad has been shut down and cleared out, the land quickly reverts to its natural state. After one year there is a patch of wildflowers, and in another year or two it becomes impossible to tell that anything was ever there.

Cattle are also an important part of the refuge. According to Drawe, "Every cow and every acre is a research unit." In fact, since the late 1950s, about 250 graduate theses and dissertations have been supported by the Foundation. Welder annually supports about 20 students to conduct research and pursue advanced degrees in wildlife conservation and management. Many of the students complete their research at Welder, and the rest are spread out across the United States and Canada. There is also an extensive outreach program that affords both younger students and their teachers the opportunity to tour the refuge.

The Welder Wildlife Refuge is living proof that oil and wildlife can mix, especially now that scientific and technological advances have made oil exploration a more environmentally sensitive activity.

Of course, ANWR and other sites under consideration for energy exploration are public lands, not private. Since politics is all too often about posturing, not progress, many of the tradeoffs and opportunities that a place like Welder faces may not exist in those locales. As a consequence, everyone expects the fight over drilling will be rude and polemic. Yet much of the sting would be removed if landowners, not the political process, were called upon to balance environmental and development needs in the first place.

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