Craig Harris Sherman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, has recommended, "a balanced approach to the development of oil and gas resources in Northwest Colorado's Little Snake Resource Area."
On Tuesday, the director released a press release stating that because of declining populations of sage grouse, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has called for expanded voluntary measures to protect the bird.
"These proactive measures are critical if we are going to get ahead of the curve and prevent the (endangered) listing of the species," Sherman said.
Sherman predicted listing the species would result in far more restrictive measures affecting not only oil and gas development but agricultural and recreational activities, as well.
In a change from the department's previous position, Sherman also recommended Vermillion Basin be set aside from leasing in the near term.
The 77,000-acre basin is "highly scenic, rich in archeological and cultural resource but contains only 2 percent of the high potential gas resources in the area," the release said.
Sherman commented on the 75,000 comments against energy leasing in the basin received by the Bureau of Land Management, during public input for the Resource Management Plan draft.
It took two years for the Northwest Colorado Stewardship, of which the BLM was a part, to come up with various alternatives for a new RMP for the next 15 to 20 years. One of the most debated issues was the role of the Vermillion Basin.
"The Vermillion, a place of stark beauty and no existing oil and gas leases, is an area that we believe should have interim protection," Sherman said. "And we support a no-lease option for the 15 to 20 year duration of the BLM plan."
Sherman noted the unprecedented pace of oil and gas development in Northwest Colorado with up to 22,000 wells planned in the White River National Forest and 15,000 in the Glenwood Springs/Kremmling planning areas.
At the June 26 meeting of the Moffat County Commissioners, commissioner Saed Tayyara expressed his displeasure with the statements from the DNR director.
"For the last couple of years (Northwest Colorado Stewardship) has been working on this (resource management) plan. It's a big downfall for the state to stop the drilling with gas prices up to $3 per gallon," Tayyara said. "In Moffat County, 80 percent of the taxes come from energy activity."
Commissioner Tom Gray agreed.
"To come in at the last second with something different than what was agreed to :" Gray said. "None of us want to see the sage grouse injured, but the 5 percent disturbance (of land in grouse-sensitive areas) is a good thing, because gas is located in pockets. They need to find that cluster and develop in that area."
Sherman said the department's comments represent a partial shift from the position of the previous administration.
"With the intensification of oil and gas development on federal lands and our growing concerns over the viability of sage grouse and other wildlife populations, we believe additional protective measures need to be taken," he said. "We also believe that a few special places should be off limits from oil and gas development at least during the 20-year life of the BLM's resource management plan."
BLM's Little Snake Field Office planning and environmental coordinator Jeremy Casterson said the bureau had been expecting the comments from the DNR director.
"They will be taken as comments from a cooperating agency," he said. "We will look at the comments and consider the issues. The Division of Wildlife does have a special expertise in (the sage grouse management) area, but its up to the BLM to make the final decision."
Casterson said most of the director's comments fall within the range of the current draft, and that banning oil and gas drilling in Vermillion Basin for the life of the plan currently is alternative D in the resource management plan draft.