Oil lease protests in

The Bureau of Land Management received 16 formal protests this week from residents concerned about possible oil and gas leasing near recreational areas, water supplies and wildlife habitat.

The protests ask the Bureau not to lease some of the 195,000 acres of land in Colorado being offered during next month's lease sale.

David Boyd, a spokesman for the BLM in Northwest Colorado, said 16 protests is a typical response for a quarterly lease sale.

The protests filed this week won't stop the mineral leases from being auctioned May 11, Boyd said. But before companies can begin drilling on the leased land, the protests will have to be settled.

The Bureau pulled one of the protested parcels from the sale.

The minerals beneath property owned by the city of Craig on the eastern edge of Elkhead reservoir will not be auctioned next month.

The Bureau pulled the parcel near Elkhead this week before the protests were due.

Boyd said the parcel near Elkhead was pulled because the Bureau had yet to address what drilling in the area would mean.

The parcel could be leased at a later date.

Environmental groups are particularly concerned about drilling in an area along the Moffat and Rio Blanco county line where black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced.

The black-footed ferret is one of the most endangered animals in the world and was once thought to be extinct.

The ferret recovery program is a joint venture among the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rich Reading, director of conservation biology at the Denver Zoological Foundation, said energy development near ferret habitat could put the endangered animal at greater risk.

"It makes no sense to throw another major challenge at this critically endangered species just as we are beginning to see progress toward recovery," Reading said.

Boyd said BLM is committed to protecting the ferret and that the bureau has limitations on drilling in the area to protect the animal.

Reed Morris of the Colorado Wilderness Network in Craig said he is concerned about the prospect of drilling in areas where the Bureau is considering changes to its resource management plan.

In one of those areas, Pinion Ridge in western Moffat County, the Bureau is considering measures that would restrict future oil and gas development.

Leasing in those areas now, while the Bureau is considering future restrictions, could make further restrictions useless.

"BLM is supposedly taking public comment on the future of the area," Morris said. "But if the lease sale goes forward as is, Pinion Ridge will go from a sportsman's playground to an oil and gas field."

But Boyd said that just because an area is undergoing a planning process that could change future policies, it doesn't mean the current plan is put on hold.

"You can't stop everything waiting for the plan to come out," Boyd said.

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