Prairie dogs threaten gas development

Expert warns BOCC that animal is focus of environmental lobby

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In Northwest Colorado, the white-tailed prairie dog has the potential to become as great an issue as the greater sage grouse, the president of a Denver energy company said.

Environmental groups such as the Center For Native Ecosystems in Denver have gone through a variety of channels to protect the prairie dog. In Moffat County, they have protested the renewal of every gas lease in the Sand Wash Basin since November, Fred Julander, president of Julander Energy Company, told the Moffat County Commissioners during a meeting Monday.

"The leases so far have been sustained, so things are going forward," Julander said. "But as long as issues are out there it makes it difficult. A lot of people will say, 'Well, who needs this?'"

"Obviously, they want to get rid of all oil and gas and all grazing," Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said.

Moffat County is one of the strongholds for white-tailed prairie dogs in Colorado. Depending on to whom one speaks, sylvatic plague, poisoning, sport shooting, natural resources and urban development all have had an impact on white-tailed prairie dogs.

But people debate the potency of each impact. Julander said anecdotal evidence from the oil and gas industry shows oil and gas development has had a neutral or beneficial impact on prairie dog populations.

In March, the Center For Native Ecosystems and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service settled a lawsuit when Fish and Wildlife agreed to make a decision on the white-tailed prairie dog by Oct. 31.

The commissioners offered to write a letter voicing their support for gas leasing in the county.

"This is basically going to be at least as big a deal as the sage grouse, isn't it?" Commissioner Darryl Steele said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to make a decision on listing the greater sage grouse as an endangered or threatened species by the end of the year. The commissioners oppose a listing of the sage grouse, and a sage grouse working group is writing a management plan for the bird in Moffat County.

The group has been working on the plan for eight years but hopes to have it finished by September. The group's hope is that if the sage grouse is listed, Fish and Wildlife will implement the county's plan, rather than lay down the many restrictions that can come with a species listing.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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