The Bureau of Land Man--age--ment announced this week that it will offer 196,000 acres in Colorado for oil and gas development, 115,000 of which are in Moffat County.
The acres up for auction will be part of the bureau's May oil and gas lease sale.
Lynn Rust, the bureau's deputy state director, said the BLM is trying to answer the nation's energy needs and at the same time consider the environmental impacts of energy development.
"While energy development on Colorado's federal lands continues to play an important part in meeting our nation's energy needs, our focus is on smart planning and working with industry to use the best practices to reduce environmental impacts on public and private lands," Rust said.
Included in the sale are 20 parcels within an area used by the black-footed ferret recovery project east of Massadona, near the Moffat County-Rio Blanco County line.
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.
Biologists with the ferret recovery project have said they aren't sure how the ferrets will respond to oil and natural gas drilling in their backyard.
Rick Krueger, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist working on the ferret project, said drilling poses an obvious risk to the ferrets, but he isn't opposed to drilling there.
Krueger said biologists worked with the BLM to put some restrictions on drilling in ferret habitat, including a stipulation that says drillers must avoid the direct or indirect loss of ferrets.
Al Pfister, western Colorado supervisor for Fish and Wildlife, said drilling in the ferret recovery project will give scientists a chance to learn more about the animals.
"We have an opportunity here to enhance our scientific understanding of the compatibility of ferret recovery and energy development," Pfister said.
'Getting off the ground'
But conservationists said this week that the ferret project, which has been in place since 2001, is not the right place for experimenting.
The project had its first confirmed wild-born ferret last fall.
"The black-footed ferret recovery effort is just getting off the ground," said Rich Reading, director of conservation biology at the Denver Zoological Foundation. "Now is not the time to be experimenting with drilling in a critically endangered species' habitat."
Reading, whose organization runs the Denver Zoo and supports conservation projects worldwide, said putting an endangered species at risk for the sake of drilling is a bad policy.
Local conservationists said the bureau is taking too aggressive an approach in leasing nearly 200,000 acres of public land for development, especially land inside the ferret recovery project and proposed wilderness areas.
"Especially in these most sensitive areas, what is the rush to lease now?" asked Reed Morris, a public lands advocate with the Colorado Wilderness Network in Craig.
The BLM is in a planning process to determine whether to allow oil and gas leasing in the future in places such as Pinyon Ridge, which is east of the ferret recovery project.
A portion of Pinyon Ridge is up for lease in the May auction.
Morris said leasing that area now defeats the purpose of limiting oil and gas development there down the road.
Decision too soon
Wes McStay, a Moffat County rancher who is active in the BLM planning process, said he was disappointed to see the bureau lease so much land before the planning process is complete.
McStay said the BLM should wait to make a decision until the planning process in finished.
"I think that would be the neighborly thing to do," McStay said. "I just hate to see it be done as a 19th century gold rush free-for-all."
Denise Adamic, a spokeswoman for the Colorado BLM, said the bureau doesn't take future planning processes into account when it makes leasing decisions.
Current policy states places such as Pinyon Ridge are open for leasing, so if industry nominates a parcel of land there, the bureau can put it up for auction, she said.
Adamic said just because an area is up for auction, it doesn't mean drilling is imminent.
There is still time for residents to protest the proposed leasing. Protests must be filed with the BLM by April 26.