Rocky Mt. News story re Threats to Wildlife from Pace of Drilling

December 12, 2007

 
 
Rocky Mountain News
 
Monday, December 10, 2007
 
Regulators, environmentalists, sportsmen and citizens have cited numerous worries about the oil and gas industry’s impacts to the environment, both realized and potential. Here’s an overview of five major categories of concern:
 
2. THREATS TO WILDLIFE
 
Habitat fragmentation
 
Gas drilling has expanded into remote parts of the state, bringing with it roads, wells and other facilities that are fragmenting what have been wide- open regions where animals could migrate freely and gain access to winter nourishment.
 
What’s known: Northwest Colorado is home to some of the largest deer and elk herds in the United States, and is a magnet for hunters nationally.
 
Research on how the fast-expanding oil and gas industry might affect those herds is still in the early stages, with no conclusions drawn yet, say officials at the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
 
But they cautiously point to research in Wyoming, much further along, that has shown elk, mule deer and sage grouse tend to avoid energy development areas.
 
Mule deer in Wyoming have stayed away from winter range that once provided critical nourishment during the colder months and sage grouse have avoided traditional mating sites.
 
Both animals saw major population declines in the regions under study, which researchers believe is tied in part to habitat loss from gas development.
 
Other factors, including drought, fires and disease, also affect wildlife, said DOW spokesman Randy Hampton, so the agency needs more data before declaring a direct relationship between gas development and any wildlife disruption.
 
“We want to have sound science, but we’re concerned,” he said.
 
Hampton and other wildlife experts fear animals are suffering from a thousand cuts because oil and gas regulators focus too much on the small picture associated with individual energy proposals.
 
“People look at us and they’re like, ‘This is only three wells. There won’t be that much impact,’” Hampton said. “But it’s three wells, and the three next to them, and the three next to them, and three more and suddenly there’s 10,000 wells. And that’s a different impact.”
 
Colorado has yet to see sage grouse declines, according to DOW specialist Tony Apa, but the species is in enough trouble regionally that it could become listed as endangered, meaning federal protection and barriers to further development.
 
Apa notes that gas development is only beginning to enter the sage grouse’s Colorado territory.
 
“Unfortunately, this bird is extremely sensitive to development (and) to disturbances,” Apa said. “It’s going to be a struggle to preserve this species.”
 
Poaching/Roadkill
 
Oil and gas workers in remote locales have been caught poaching wildlife, and the building of new roads in once hard-to-reach areas has improved access for would-be poachers and joy-riders. Fast-growing and fast-moving truck traffic is leading to increases in roadkill.
 
What’s known: Wildlife authorities in Colorado and Wyoming have linked gas workers to several poaching incidents, including a case this year where a worker was fined $10,000 and received a lifetime suspension of hunting privileges in Colorado for killing a trophy buck, cutting off its head and leaving the body to rot.
 
But authorities said it’s not necessarily energy workers that are the problem, but increased access.
 
“There’s 30-foot-wide dirt highways in some of these places,” said DOW spokesman Hampton. “That kind of access puts a lot of people into areas where we didn’t have people before.”
 
Wildlife officers covering 800-square- mile areas now must patrol twice as many roads for poachers, Hampton said.
 
Wildlife officials say they saw significant increases in poaching during the Western Slope energy boom of the 1980s as well and feel more prepared this time to combat the problem. Even so, the number of headless carcasses found has risen in the last few years.
 
Vehicles also are killing more animals.
 
One major artery for oil- and gas-related traffic is Colorado 13 between Rifle and Craig. Ron Velarde, DOW’s northwest regional manager, said traffic on the highway has risen “tenfold.”
 
“It’s increased the roadkill tremendously, especially when (animals) are in migratory patterns,” he said.
 
Loosening rules
 
The Bureau of Land Management often grants exceptions to rules known as “stipulations,” which are designed to protect wildlife from oil and gas development on public lands. The agency says it grants exemptions only when it won’t harm wildlife, but wildlife advocates say the stipulations are routinely waived.
 
What’s known: A review of BLM records by advocacy groups found that rules to protect animals, birds and fish were waived in most cases in southwestern Wyoming.
 
Between 2001 and 2004, 86 percent of raptor protections, 90 percent of sage grouse protections and 88 percent of protections for winter wildlife range were waived, according to federal data analyzed by The Wilderness Society.
 
Data for federal lands in Colorado isn’t as complete, but in fiscal year 2006, the BLM granted changes to protections 50 times out of 77 requests, but issued no outright waivers.
 
In the BLM’s controversial proposal to permit drilling atop Colorado’s Roan Plateau, the agency acknowledged it “cannot reasonably preclude granting of exceptions ... if the proponent can demonstrate that the exception would not cause injury to the resource.”
 
Green groups complain that granting such waivers is a way of quietly watering down protections for wildlife. But BLM spokesman Jim Sample said broadly applied stipulations might not make sense in some specific cases.
 
He cited the example of a warm spring that melts snow early, which leads elk herds to move off winter range early. The BLM could verify the elk have moved and allow a company to begin work earlier than a stipulation had allowed, he said.
 
 
 
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