Groups: Drilling plan fails to address impacts on winter big game habitat |

Groups: Drilling plan fails to address impacts on winter big game habitat

Dennis WebbGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado

PARACHUTE – Contributing to tamarisk removal along the Colorado River is an inadequate tradeoff for impacts on deer and elk that will result from a drilling plan near Parachute, three conservation groups say.The Colorado Wildlife Federation, Colorado Mule Deer Association and National Wildlife Federation say a federal decision to allow drilling of 139 wells doesn’t include crucial mitigation to address loss of winter range habitat for big game.The wells would be drilled by EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) on 4,820 acres of public and private land about three miles southeast of Parachute. EnCana would drill directionally from 16 existing and 10 new well pads.The company did agree to fund a project by the nonprofit Tamarisk Coalition to remove the invasive species and otherwise restore habitat on about 250 acres along the river, generally west of Parachute. The conservation groups filed a protest Sept. 27 with the BLM’s state headquarters over the drilling decision made by its Glenwood Springs office. The BLM must respond within 10 days of that protest.Mule deer move from Battlement Mesa into the proposed drilling area each fall. The BLM found that the drilling would result in a reduction in habitat use on about 53 percent of the 4,820 acres.The wildlife groups contend the agency manipulated the planning area so drilling and road-building densities would fall below the thresholds at which the BLM would require off-site habitat mitigation. They say the BLM enlarged the planning area to include areas not envisioned for drilling so the well pad density would be less than a threshold of four per square mile.The conservation groups also say the BLM is misinterpreting its own 1999 Glenwood-area management plan language regarding habitat mitigation. That plan refers to a threshold of four wells per square mile, but the BLM now is counting the number of pads.”They’ve made that interpretation to take the energy companies off the hook for mitigation work, without public input,” said Bob Elderkin, a Silt Mesa resident and board member for the Colorado Mule Deer Association.Now retired from the BLM, Elderkin had helped write the 1999 plan.Steve Bennett, associate field manager for the BLM’s Glenwood Springs Field Office, said the BLM reads its 1999 policy differently now because there wasn’t much directional drilling going on in 1999. Now, energy companies generally drill numerous wells from one pad, reducing surface impacts.The conservation groups also point out that the BLM’s decision on the EnCana drilling looks just a few years ahead and fails to consider longer-term habitat impacts. They expect that full development of the area will entail one well for each 10 acres, which could result in many more additional wells and impacts.Bennett said it “gets pretty speculative when you try to guess what’s going to happen for many, many years out.”Elderkin and other wildlife proponents think the BLM’s decision reflects a mandate by the Bush administration to make drilling a priority on public lands. He fears that if further drilling is proposed in the planning area southeast of Parachute, it won’t undergo adequate review “unless there’s somebody other than a Republican in the White House.”Bennett said further environmental review occurs any time changes are made to drilling plans.EnCana spokesman Doug Hock said the drilling plan is the result of a two-year process.”So it wasn’t something that was rushed through,” he said.”We strongly believe that we can develop according to our plan and do it in a way that is protective of wildlife or we wouldn’t have submitted it,” he said. “That’s important to us.”Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said the BLM addressed some issues the agency had raised about the drilling plan. But the DOW remains concerned that the plan lacks adequate detail and disclosure of impacts. It’s hard to examine effects on wildlife without knowing site-specific information, he said.Contact Dennis Webb: 384-9119dwebb@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO

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