Biologists unsure how ferrets will take drilling

Wildlife biologists don't know what to make of a recent decision that could mean oil and gas drilling in the backyard of one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

The Bureau of Land Management has nominated a portion of land south of Manassa, near the Rio Blanco-Moffat County line, for oil and gas lease.

The parcel proposed for lease includes part of an area where biologists have released 186 black-footed ferrets, an endangered species scientists once thought to be extinct.

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

Biologists involved in the program said this week that the prospect of drilling near ferret habitat is a concern, but they don't know what it will mean for the reintroduction program.

BLM officials say it is too early to speculate about drilling in the area.

The Bureau has until March 28 to decide whether to lease the parcels near the ferret habitat, BLM spokeswoman Theresa Sauer said.

"It's premature to make any calls right now," she said.

If the bureau decides to auction the leases on the land, there could be stipulations designed to protect the animals, Sauer said.

Rick Krueger, a biologist with the wildlife service, said drilling in the area worries him, but the effects of drilling are difficult to determine.

The ferrets live in prairie dog burrows, and their primary food source is prairie dogs.

"It would depend on where they are in relation to the prairie dog towns," Krueger said about the oil rigs that could be coming to the area.

Krueger said although the lease was offered, it doesn't mean a company will drill in the area.

Seismic studies in the area show it might not be a very productive region, Krueger said.

"But, with energy the way it is, probably someone will bid on the leases," Krueger said.

Sauer said the energy industry nominated the area for lease, but she didn't know which company was interested in the area.

Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the Division of Wildlife, said it is particularly difficult to predict what effect drilling could have on the ferrets because the species was once thought to be extinct.

"There's just no research out there," Hampton said.

Biologists aren't only concerned about the possibility of oil rigs near ferret habitat, Hampton said. Biologists are also concerned about the prospect of making roads into the area and bringing more people in, he said.

Brandon Johansson can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 213, or bjohansson@craigdailypress.com.

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