Draft version may include outdated science
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — The next big battle over fossil fuel development in Colorado is shaping up in the Piceance Basin, where a new draft BLM land-use plan would permit up to 15,000 new oil and gas wells in what’s been called the state’s mule deer factory.
Conservation groups say the BLM plan uses obsolete data and isn’t supported by the best available science.
John Ellenberger, the state’s former big game manager, said the BLM plan is full of holes and doesn’t address some basic issues, including how baseline data on wildlife will be gathered. He called the management approach that could result in high levels of disturbance in key wildlife habitat “unprecedented.’’
“If something like this goes through as planned, the deer are going to exist at much lower densities than in the past,’’ Ellenberger said. “The other thing is how do hunters react to it? Hunters don’t want to hunt in an industrial zone, with pump jacks, derricks, roads and other fixtures. They’re not going to drive from Pennsylvania, California or Missouri to hunt mule deer in the West and have that kind of experience.’’
The White River mule deer herd has plummeted to an estimated 43,700 from more than 120,000 in the early 1980s. Ellenberger said the reasons are varied: loss of habitat; drought; the spread of noxious weeds that deer can’t eat; disease. He said he fears that what could be a 750 percent increase in oil and gas drilling with the accompanying roads and pipelines will prevent the herd from ever recovering.
In press release issued this week, the National Wildlife Federation and the Colorado Wildlife Federation urged the BLM to scrap the draft plan and start over. The 2,000 wells already dotting the area have fragmented habitat, contributing to a significant long-term decline in North America’s largest migratory mule deer herd, the two groups said in formal comments on the proposal.
Yet, the BLM’s plan uses seriously outdated information on mule deer numbers, putting the population at 106,000 while state wildlife scientists estimated the herd at 43,700 after the 2011 hunting season, said Michael Saul, NWF attorney.
The current herd is likely already smaller than the level deemed acceptable in the BLM’s preferred development option – about 47,250 deer, or 70 percent of the state’s objective population of 67,500 deer.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that, from a wildlife perspective, this is the worst BLM plan I’ve ever seen,’’ Saul said.
Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, criticized the BLM for choosing to used outdated deer numbers when research by wildlife scientists continues to show “a steady and alarming decline’’ in numbers.
“This herd will continue to deteriorate unless the BLM protects essential winter range,’’ O’Neill said. “We call on the BLM to work with the state’s wildlife agency to use accurate numbers and the best science to ensure our wildlife heritage and its important fishing and hunting economic contribution can be sustained.”
The region is also home to the greater sage-grouse, under consideration for addition to the Endangered Species List, some of the country’s largest elk herds, lynx and Colorado River cutthroat trout. The BLM’s plan could allow at least four to six times more disturbance in important wildlife habitat than is allowed under other oil and gas plans in the region.
“The BLM’s plan to allow up to 15,000 new oil and gas wells in the Piceance Basin could be nothing short of a death sentence for one of the country’s largest mule deer herds and the greater sage-grouse, a species already teetering on the brink of no return,’’ said Kate Zimmerman, NWF’s public lands policy director.