Up-front collaboration between wildlife experts and energy companies will result in more certainty for operators, better protection for deer, elk and sage grouse
SUMMIT COUNTY — It’s not often you hear conservation groups praising oil and gas drilling plans, but a group of groundbreaking voluntary agreements covering 355,000 acres of key wildlife habitat in Western Colorado announced Aug. 11 elicited genuine praise from the National Wildlife Federation, and cautious optimism from other environmental stakeholders.
For the first time, wildlife protection is a priority instead of an afterthought,” said John Gale, a regional National Wildlife Federation representative.
“By identifying the most appropriate places to site well pads, roads, and other energy infrastructure ahead of the permitting process we can mitigate impacts and disturbance to important species like mule deer, elk, and sage grouse in the most critical areas,” Gale said. See a full-size map of the areas here.
“These wildlife protection plans are another example of how Colorado’s new energy economy is creating jobs and leading America toward a new energy future,” said Gov. Bill Ritter. “By working together, we are protecting important wildlife habitat while also responsibly developing our energy resources. This balanced approach will drive our economy forward, allow us to maximize our vast energy resources and ensure sustainable communities for years to come,” Ritter added.
The agreements were negotiated during the past 18 months pursuant to Colorado’s new oil and gas rules. They will protect more than 550 square miles of land designated as important habitat for elk, deer, raptors, sage grouse and cutthroat trout.
“These wildlife mitigation plans will provide economic certainty for energy companies and habitat stability for wildlife,” Gale said.
The agreements call for energy companies to work with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to avoid development in core sage grouse areas, to implement seasonal avoidance strategies to limit impacts to mule deer and elk during sensitive calving and fawning months, and to limit drilling in particularly sensitive habitat areas or migratory corridors.
“Hunters and anglers like myself understand that, like hunting and fishing, energy development is a part of life in Colorado. These plans make fish and wildlife a priority instead of an afterthought and set a positive example for other western states to emulate,” he concluded.
The first thing is the siting of well pads is addressed before permits are issued,” said Theo Stein, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, explaining that the agreements apply on lands designated as sensitive wildlife areas.
Stein said best management practices, including up-to-date technologies, are also part of the strategy to minimize impacts. That includes high-efficiency drill rigs that are faster and quieter, as well remotely operated equipment and monitoring that can help reduce the amount of traffic to drill sites.
The third leg of the agreements includes mitigation with habitat treatments like weed control and other measures to improve habitat conditions in targeted areas, Stein said.
“This takes the uncertainty out of the process,” Stein said, adding that the operators that he’s worked with are genuinely interested in protecting wildlife habitat in Colorado. Stein also said the Colorado Division Wildlife also stepped up to work on this project needed to make good choices.
Last week, the Division of Wildlife and Exxon Mobil Corp. signed the largest wildlife protection plan to date, covering 150,000 acres of mainly federal land in Rio Blanco County.
Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., whose North Parachute Ranch plan was the first major agreement to be signed, and Williams Production RMT, which has signed two separate agreements for acreage bracketing the Colorado River, are also among the companies to enter into new agreements with the state.
Other companies are: Antero Resources Piceance Corp., Marathon Oil Co., Noble Energy Inc., Black Hills Exploration & Production, Delta Petroleum and Gunnison Energy Corp.
“These plans are a recipe for success,” said David Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “They will allow for development of needed energy supplies while protecting some of our most iconic wildlife species. They epitomize win-win solutions.”
The participating companies were able to use three different tools available under the state’s amended oil and gas rules to protect wildlife habitat. The rules were developed following the legislature’s adoption of House bills 1298 and 1341 in 2007.
“It’s important that we recognize the significance of these agreements, which will protect big chunks of important habitat so that future generations will be able to enjoy Colorado’s extraordinary wildlife heritage,” said state Sen. Dan Gibbs, a passionate sportsman and co- sponsor of HB 1298. “We’ve shown that it is possible to accommodate the needs of wildlife while strengthening Colorado’s economy.”
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