Energy. Environment. Economy.

Why deer can be attracted to gas drilling sites

Deer are attracted to salty spots, which can include areas exposed to the salty flowback fluid from gas development.

JohnWDavisJr via Flickr

Deer are attracted to salty spots, which can include areas exposed to flowback fluid from gas development.

Hunters have long known deer love salt. In Pennsylvania it’s illegal to put out salt licks to try to attract deer. But there are still salty spots deer find on their own.

One of those places can be gas drilling sites.The brine water that comes back up after hydraulic fracturing (known as flowback) can be as much as 10 times saltier than seawater. It can also contain heavy metals and radioactive materials.

The state Department of Environmental Protection acknowledges that brine spills large and small do occur, and they have not studied its impacts to wildlife.

Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau says they haven’t studied gas drilling’s impact on deer either, but anecdotally, brine is not much of an issue.

“Not to say it’s not happening,” he says. “But our guys that work pretty closely with the gas industry haven’t really seen that.”

U.S. Forest Service soil scientist, Mary Beth Adams, has studied deer’s attraction to the salt left behind in the soil at reclaimed drilling sites in West Virginia, which has less stringent regulations related to flowback. She recently spoke with StateImpact Pennsylvania about her research.

Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity

Q: What do we know in terms of how this affects the food system?

A: There’s relatively little research in general on the effects of natural gas development. I’m not familiar with much research on the effects of wildlife or even on vegetation. It simply hasn’t been done. The pace of development is outpacing the research.

Q: What kind of work do you do?

A: The Forest Service manages land. I’m part of the research division. I do research to help people understand how ecosystems work, how they behave when they’re stressed, and how to manage them better for a variety of uses.

The research I described here was based on our experience on the Fernow Experimental Forest, which is a research forest.  A conventional gas well was developed on the Fernow, and we looked at the impacts after the development of the gas well.

Q: What did you find? There was a lot of dead vegetation, right? Was flowback sprayed on it?

A: Right. In West Virginia it is permissible to apply flowback fluids to the land as long as they meet state regulations. [Note: this is illegal in Pennsylvania] You actually get a permit to do that. But the permit standard is a concentration standard, not a dose standard.

So for example, you can get a brief whiff of hydrogen sulfide and that’s not going to be toxic to you as a human being. But if you are exposed to a huge amount of it, even if the concentration’s the same, it’s more dangerous. It’s like medicine.

What we found was the concentration standard did not protect the forest vegetation. What happened was too much [flowback fluid] was applied on too small an area. And it was mostly the salts –calcium and sodium chloride– that negatively affected the vegetation. It was affected first through immediate contact, but then by uptake and also the physiological function of the trees.

Q: Can you describe what you found with deer populations near gas development?

A: Deer have a requirement as they come out in spring in early summer; they need more minerals. The deer are attracted to natural minerals sources, like salt.

In this case, where the flowback pond had been there were salts near the surface and they were leaching out in a small spring. So the deer were attracted to it. It brings the deer in from a great distance around, and it concentrates them.

Q: So if they’re eating salt, that doesn’t sound too concerning.  Could there be an issue with the quality of the venison?

A:  It depends on what else is in there. The salts themselves — sodium and calcium chloride– are part of the salt blocks people put out to attract deer. We all eat sodium chloride in our meals.

But there are other constituents that are probably associated with those salts. The deer may be ingesting those as well– the heavy metals and the radionuclides. We don’t know. There’s been so little work done on what’s in there. And then how it moves through the ecosystem. Maybe it all leaches out quickly. Probably it doesn’t. But we don’t know that.

Q: So for avid hunters, is this something they should be aware of?

A: It would be really good if the Food and Drug Administration or somebody who does public health research could look at this. It would be relatively easy to do some simple [sampling]. But the states are not going to have the funding to do that, and I’m not aware the federal government is doing that.

Q: Anything else?

A: Just that the gas boom has moved so quickly, [and] the research is way far behind the development of the resource. We do this over and over again. We find something that’s wonderful– usually related to energy– and we just rush ahead without thinking about what the impacts are. We did it with coal, we’ve done it with oil, we’re doing it with gas, we did it with nuclear.

It would be nice if humans were a little less impetuous and that we would actually think about what might be the potential impacts and do some research before we run away with it, but I think it’s probably human nature.



  • clairesse

    Some people hunt because they want a “clean” lean meat for their famlies. The frack waste leaks out of pits and there are other operational spills and incidents that expose wildlife. The brine is not just brine–listen to you tube lectures by Dr Ingraffea of Cornell. It also contains heavy metals, frack chemicals, and can be radioactive. Do we want these toxins in our meat supply? When people hunt, they eat many pounds of meat from the same animal. No one knows the health effect if that animal is contaminated.

    • Deer Hunter

      As u stated, “…and can be radioactive…”. and “No one knows the health effect IF that animal is contaminated.” Stop the libtard speculation and false scare tactics!

  • NorthernTier

    “Cattle from Tioga County Farm Quarantined after Coming in Contact with Natural Gas Drilling Wastewater”

    “Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said uncertainty over the quantity of wastewater the cattle may have consumed warranted the quarantine in order to protect the public from eating potentially contaminated beef. …
    Redding said the main element of concern is the heavy metal strontium, which can be toxic to humans, especially in growing children. …”

    Searches of the Agriculture website by its Search function and via Google for “strontium” gave no result. So, the “official” resolution is unknown.

  • Paul Bodnick

    Maybe of stories about poisoned hunters will motivate states to control fracking.

    • riverratNC

      We had better all pray it never gets to that point, Mr. Bodnick.

  • paulroden

    Here again is another health issue not being studied on the impacts of fracking. If there was no fracking, the issue of salt, heavy metals and radioactive nucleoids in dear meat, would not be an issue. Migration from spent wells, spills, over flow from waste ponds and contamination of municipal water treatment plants and exposure from snow and ice removal on roads and highways after frack waste being declared as having “beneficial use”, would not be a problem. Ah, “better things for better living through chemistry.”

    • NorthernTier

      Brine can also be applied to dirt roads for dust suppression and road stabilization. It does require that the municipality get a shall-issue “permit” from the DEP.

  • Save Our Streams Pa

    In addition to high saline fluids associated with new wells, deer consume the brine which flows from abandoned wells. Many of these wells pour massive amounts of brine laced with oil and other contaminants continuously for decades.

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