Article: North Park Big Game Habitat at Risk, groups argue

The following article was written by E&E reporter Scott Streater, November 3, 2011 in its Land Letter:

Niobrara oil boom putting Colorado big game habitat at risk, groups argueA coalition of sporting groups and environmental advocates is pressing the Bureau of

Land Management to limit oil drilling in a northwest Colorado valley that's so
biologically diverse that some have christened it the "American Serengeti."
The coalition, known as Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, is concerned
about protecting a remote area at the headwaters of the North Platte River called
North Park -- a pristine, glacier-carved valley amid towering mountain peaks that
also happens to sit atop the Niobrara oil formation that stretches along Colorado's
Front Range into parts of eastern Wyoming and northern New Mexico.
In a two-page letter<> to
BLM officials in Colorado, the coalition -- whose members range from the National
Wildlife Federation to the Colorado Bowhunters Association -- wrote that its members
"understand that energy development should and will occur. We support responsible
energy development."
image removed<>

The Bureau of Land Management is working on a revised resource management plan for
the Kremmling Field Office covering 377,900 acres in north-central Colorado --
including the North Park valley in Jackson County -- that includes the resource-rich
Niobrara oil bed. Click image for larger version. Map courtesy of BLM.

But it urged BLM State Director Helen Hankins and Dave Stout, manager of the
agency's Kremmling Field Office in northwest Colorado, to consider implementing
protective measures like drilling setbacks from waterways and requirements to use
directional drilling and other techniques that limit the density of well pads and
reduce impacts to the wildlife habitat that makes the valley a world-class area for
big-game hunting and fishing.
"Many of the companies now developing the West's energy resources have shown they
have the knowledge and capital to use the best and newest technology to avoid and
reduce the impacts of energy development," the letter states. "Yet even with these
remarkable technological breakthroughs, the BLM must consider reducing access or
even preventing drilling, particularly in habitat critical for big game migration,
winter survival and fawning and calving areas."
Oil and gas industry officials rejected the notion that drilling in the region would
cause widespread surface disturbance and contribute to water pollution. They noted
that modern drilling techniques and practices have minimized or eliminated impacts
on valued landscapes across the West.
David Ludlum, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association
in Grand Junction, said the industry is concerned that BLM appears to be listening
to conservation advocates opposed to increased domestic energy production, and he
blamed the Obama administration.
"When you look throughout Colorado, you have a number of BLM resource management
plans [RMPs] being revised. And one of the trends we're seeing in northwest Colorado
is all of these documents are becoming more and more restrictive as far as energy
development," Ludlum said. "Creating intentional surface restrictions that takes
these resources out of play in perpetuity is extremely shortsighted."
Managing multiple uses
Indeed, the coalition's letter comes as BLM works to finalize a revised resource
management plan for the Kremmling Field Office in northwest Colorado for the first
time since 1984.
The revised RMP is expected to cover 377,900 acres of BLM-managed lands and 653,500
acres of federal mineral estate in all or part of six Colorado counties, including
Jackson County, where North Park Valley is located.
The agency released a draft
and draft environmental impact
(EIS) in September, both of which are open for public review and comment through
Jan. 17. A final EIS and proposed plan are expected in the fall of 2012.
BLM's "preferred alternative" in the draft RMP/EIS is a mixture of conservation
measures and resource uses, including oil and gas drilling.
David Boyd, a BLM spokesman in Silt, Colo., said he is confident the draft plan can
be refined to meet both energy development and conservation goals.
"I think people should look at all the alternatives we've outlined in the document
because there's a pretty wide range of what's possible out there," said Boyd. "But
everything in that range of alternatives is still on the table, and what we expect
will come out of this plan will be a blend of those varying alternatives."
But the sporting groups have already decided on the proper course of action, and
they are lobbying BLM to select Alternative C in the draft plan, which places "a
priority on sustaining and restoring resources and habitats," according to the
This alternative offers "serious consideration of habitat protection," said Michael
Saul, a National Wildlife Federation attorney in Boulder, Colo.
Booming industry
Meanwhile, the Niobrara formation has become the fastest-growing oil play in
Colorado and one of the new energy development hot spots in the United States.
Through mid-September, state regulators had permitted 545 horizontal wells, mostly
in Weld County at the heart of the Niobrara play, said David Neslin, director of the
Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Of those, only about 130 wells have actually been dug, and most are exploratory
wells, Neslin said.
In total, that's less than 20 percent of the 3,500 horizontal well permits issued
statewide, he said.
Still, the drilling activity is springing up so quickly, including around the
suburbs of the Denver metropolitan area, that some local leaders have started
raising concerns about potentially negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts
(Land Letter<>, Oct. 27).
Colorado counties in the path of the Niobrara have attempted to get out front of the
drilling and devise their own regulations for hydraulic fracturing -- the
controversial technique of injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at high
pressure to create fissures in tight rock formations that allow oil and gas to flow
freely to the surface.
Some of these counties are writing rules for "fracking" that go beyond what is
already required under existing regulations
(Greenwire<>, Oct. 31).
Given the heightened concern, the sportsmen's group argues that BLM must be
proactive in regulating drilling to ensure the North Park valley and the surrounding
area is protected.
The region sits at the head of the North Platte River, which flows north into
Wyoming and helps maintain habitat critical for endangered species, said Barbara
Vasquez, a Walden, Colo., resident working with Trout Unlimited, the Colorado
Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife Federation to protect the region.
That's one reason why any drilling activity needs to be done in ways that protect
sensitive waterways, said Suzanne O'Neill, executive director of the Colorado
Wildlife Federation in Denver.
"Current oil and gas rules do not prevent development too close to these riparian
areas, and in fact, one drilling pad on state land is a stone's throw from the
high-water mark of a well-known tributary," she said.
Click here<> to read the
sportsmen's letter to BLM.
to read the draft RMP and accompanying draft EIS.
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.
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