Natural resource drilling at Vermillion Basin lies at the heart of controversy surrounding the Bureau of Land Management's Resource Management Plan for Northwest Colorado. Representatives from several government agencies met Wednesday at the BLM Little Snake Field Office in Craig to discuss possible increases to environmental protections in some areas of Moffat and Routt counties.

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Natural resource drilling at Vermillion Basin lies at the heart of controversy surrounding the Bureau of Land Management's Resource Management Plan for Northwest Colorado. Representatives from several government agencies met Wednesday at the BLM Little Snake Field Office in Craig to discuss possible increases to environmental protections in some areas of Moffat and Routt counties.

Chickens and drilling

Agencies meet with BLM about sage-grouse habitat considerations

— By all accounts, the cooperating agencies meeting at the Bureau of Land Management Little Snake Field Office in Craig went well.

After "two grueling years" of negotiating the Resource Management Plan for the Little Snake area - which includes most of Moffat and Routt counties - the agencies involved understand the process and seem to appreciate the consideration given their concerns, said Jeremy Casterson, BLM Little Snake Field Office planning and environmental coordinator.

"I think they really appreciate the collaborative process we went through," he said.

Participants included Moffat County, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Colorado State Land Board and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

The meeting was part of a process following the public comment period for agencies to provide final considerations before the BLM releases its proposed management plan, scheduled for December, Casterson said. Following that is a formal protest period before the management plan is approved, estimated to happen September 2009.

Considering Wednesday's meeting focused on possible environmental protection increases to BLM's preferred alternative for the area's management plan - and despite accounts of good working relationships - the potential for controversy was there.

The biggest discussion revolved around energy development impacts on sage-grouse habitats.

In 2006, while the BLM formulated different plan alternatives, the DOW sent a letter to Casterson's office notifying them that DOW officials felt new studies on sage-grouse habitats proved greater drilling restrictions were necessary.

The DOW letter prompted BLM officials to re-examine their plan for the Little Snake area, Casterson said.

"The studies portray grouse are more impacted by oil and gas development than we thought," he said. "That's leading us to think about having more restrictions."

The law does not allow for new restrictions to be placed on already-leased land. Developers lease about 90 percent of all high-potential resource lands in Little Snake, Casterson said.

Any statutes in the BLM's final proposed Management Plan will apply to all lands leased thereafter. But BLM officials would like to encourage companies to meet any new standards, also.

"We're trying to brainstorm on some creative ways to do that," Casterson said.

One plan came out of DOW and Moffat County officials working together on a voluntary, incentive-based program.

Due to sage-grouse life cycles, BLM prohibits drilling in certain areas during the spring and winter seasons.

The DOW/Moffat County plan would grant companies year-round drilling rights if they agreed to no more than 5 percent ground disturbance per lease and limit their operations so they did not fragment a larger habitat area, which could drive out wildlife.

DOW's letter also may impact how close companies can drill to a sage-grouse lek, the domain males use to attract females.

At the time DOW sent its letter in 2006, BLM's preferred plan prohibited drilling within a quarter-mile of sage-grouse leks. DOW requested BLM increase that distance to six-tenths of a mile in light of the research.

That quarter-mile restriction was the same as the BLM's current Resource Management Plan, passed in 1989.

When that restriction passed, there had not been any studies done on sage-grouse habitats; it was an arbitrary distance used to protect habitats in some way, said Brad Petch, DOW Northwest Colorado senior wildlife conservation biologist.

"A quarter-mile has been a presumptive standard across the West since the mid-'70s," Petch said. "There's growing evidence that distance is too small."

Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray attended Wednesday's meeting expecting to protest increasing the restricted drilling distance. Afterward, he said he felt more comfortable.

"I'm not sure I believe the science has been proven on that" concern for sage-grouse, Gray said. "I don't feel it's been adequately peer reviewed.

"But, because of the way the six-tenths of a mile is in there, exceptions can be made to it. I'm not going to say 'I like the six-tenths of a mile,' but the logic BLM used to get there, I was OK with."

Each agency has until March 12 to file additional comments regarding issues raised at Wednesday's meeting.

Moffat County officials do not plan to file a protest regarding new sage-grouse stipulations, Gray said.

Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or cesmith@craigdailypress.com

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