For decades, sportsmen in Northwest Colorado have hunted some of the world's largest herds of elk, mule deer and pronghorn in an area known as the "mule deer factory."
Intact habitat on backcountry Bureau of Land Management lands helped give rise to this name by providing large, undisturbed landscapes that enable big game to thrive. These backcountry lands also provide hunters and anglers with solitude, something increasingly rare in a state with more than 5 million residents. The best hunting and fishing in this part of the state is found almost exclusively on BLM lands, along with a few key state lands.
To maintain the high quality fish and wildlife values of these lands, hunters and anglers are calling on the White River Field Office to implement a new, locally conceived, bottom-up land allocation called a backcountry conservation area, or BCA.
As proposed, this allocation would protect public access, honor existing rights and conserve intact fish and wildlife habitat, while allowing common-sense activities to restore habitat and protect communities from wildfire.
Our public lands are managed for a variety of uses. The 1.5 million acres of BLM lands west of Meeker are a great example of a multiple-use landscape. Some areas allow livestock grazing or natural gas extraction, while areas such as East Douglas Creek serve as crucial habitat for Colorado River cutthroat trout, sage grouse and big game.
In the face of a forecast for intense and high-volume development in Rio Blanco, Moffat and Garfield counties, lands that offer valuable fish and wildlife habitat and public access for hunting and angling must be safeguarded.
The BLM's White River Field Office recently released an amendment to its management plan, which will guide the development of oil and natural gas resources on these public lands for the next 20 years. The BLM's preferred alternative estimates as many as 16,000 new wells could be drilled over that period. As sportsmen, we see firsthand what happens to fish and wildlife and our outdoor heritage as a result of intensely developed public lands.
More than ever before, the Colorado BLM needs to set aside adequate backcountry lands for conservation through a BCA allocation that sustains fish and wildlife populations and upholds recreational opportunities. This may be the last chance to safeguard these high value lands. Unequivocally, now is the time to begin the process.
Comments are being taken on the draft plan through Dec. 14. Go online to www.blm.gov/co, click on the White River Field Office. Or write Heather Sauls, Planning and Environmental Coordinator, Bureau of Land Management, White River Field Office, 220 E. Market St., Meeker, CO 81641. Email comments to Colorado_WROGEIS@ blm.gov.
John Gale is the regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation and co-chair of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Nick Payne is the Colorado field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.