Wildlife wins out in gas decision | PostIndependent.com

Wildlife wins out in gas decision

Lynn Burton
Staff Writer

The Bureau of Land Management denied a gas exploration company’s request to drive heavy drilling equipment through critical big game habitat south of Rifle last Friday.

In his letter of denial, acting BLM Field Manager Steve Bennett said EnCana’s wildlife mitigation plan would still result in unacceptable impacts to big game winter range.

“The mitigation plan proposed is minimal and does little to address the major impacts associated with the high level of truck traffic and loads required to support three drill rig sites and up to seventeen wells,” Bennett said.

EnCana had asked for a waiver to allow it to bring heavy rigs into its drilling area on Grass Mesa this winter.

Grass Mesa subdivision property manager Cheri Chartier applauded the BLM’s decision not to let EnCana drive drilling rigs on the company’s recently completed private road.

“We think it’s terrific,” Chartier said. “Their decision was well researched and thought out. We’re tickled they went to that extent.”

EnCana agreed to build the $500,000 road earlier this year after the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission told the company to either find an alternate route to Grass Mesa, or upgrade the existing private road to the subdivision.

EnCana has shared the road with Grass Mesa residents for the last few years.

The BLM’s Glenwood Springs field office approved the mile-long alternate road to Grass Mesa in September, but stipulated EnCana could not put drilling rigs and heavy equipment on it from Dec. 1 through April 30.

In his letter to EnCana, Bennett said his major concern is the stress on wintering animals that would be created by “the large volume of proposed vehicular traffic.”

He said the BLM has noted elk have already moved into their Grass Mesa winter range.

“Specific to this year, animals are coming on to poor condition winter range due to the extreme 2002 drought,” Bennett wrote. “Forage production was generally poor across much of the area, particularly the lowland winter range habitats. In addition to the poor range conditions, many animals are not in the best condition coming on to poor winter range.

“This is also attributed to the drought and the poor summer forage conditions. These factors, coupled with the potential for a heavy snow year, exacerbate the concern for wintering big game animals in the area.”

Bennett told the Post Independent the Colorado Division of Wildlife offered input on EnCana’s waiver request, but did not take a formal position.

Bennett said the BLM can consider a waiver request after March 1, if the winter is a mild one. “However, we will not be able to make that determination until we can evaluate the winter conditions in mid February,” Bennett’s letter said.

Bennett said EnCana can appeal his decision to the BLM’s state director.

EnCana spokesperson Scott Ranson said his company has no plans to appeal the BLM decision “in the near term.”

EnCana still has the option of upgrading the private Grass Mesa subdivision road under terms of the agreement reach with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Commission deputy director Brian Macke said on Monday that EnCana hasn’t contacted his office about upgrading the Grass Mesa road.

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