Energy Leases Canceled in Wildlife Habitat

Work by NWF, Partners Pays Off

Herds of elk, mule deer and pronghorn, black bears, mountain lions, native cutthroat trout, peregrine falcons and other wildlife living in parts of western Colorado have more certainty now that the sagebrush lands, mountain meadows, waters and forested hillsides on which they depend won’t be disturbed any time soon by new oil and gas wells.

The Interior Department has signed off on two decisions cancelling oil and gas leases on fish and wildlife habitat covering more than 70,000 acres. The areas affected — the Roan Plateau and the Thompson Divide — are favorites of hunters, anglers, hikers, wildlife watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The Thompson Divide is in the White River National Forest, the country’s most-visited national forest.

During a Nov. 17 ceremony at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the decisions codify “more thoughtful development of our landscapes than what might have been charted  just a few years ago.”

“I look forward to this being the wave of the future no matter who’s in my position because it just makes sense for the American people.” — Sally Jewell

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and BLM Diector Neil Kornze, in back, announce the cancellation of oil and gas leases in important fish and wildlife habitat in western Colorado. Image: NWF

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and BLM Diector Neil Kornze, in back, announce the cancellation of oil and gas leases in important fish and wildlife habitat in western Colorado. Photo by NWF

Together, the decisions represent more than a quarter-century of work by the National Wildlife Federation and several other sportsmen’s and conservation organizations to conserve some of the last, best open and undeveloped places in the West, for wildlife and for people.

“Sometimes it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. But conservation is never a spectator sport,” says Kate Zimmerman, NWF’s public lands policy director.

The Roan Plateau is habitat for some of the country's largest mule deer herds. Image: John Gale

The Roan Plateau is habitat for some of the country’s largest mule deer herds. Photo by John Gale

The National Wildlife Federation joined a lawsuit in 2008 after the Bureau of Land Management sold leases on top of the Roan Plateau that could have resulted in thousands of new wells on the public lands. Under a settlement of the lawsuit saying the environmental review was inadequate, the BLM agreed to rewrite the management plan for the Roan and the federal government agreed to buy back the leases.

Clare Bastable, senior director of the National Wildlife Federation’s public lands program, notes the oil and gas leases on the Roan Plateau and in the Thompson Divide were issued during the Bush administration’s push for more drilling on public lands. Leasing reforms by the Obama administration were intended to strike a better balance between energy development and other uses of public lands.

“This is a real-life example of how the NWF and partner organizations’ refusal to quit, even in some of the most challenging political atmospheres, has resulted in the direct protection of tens of thousands of acres of important habitat for wildlife and for people,” Bastable says.

The Roan Plateau, about 180 miles west of Denver, is habitat for some of the country’s largest mule deer and elk herds. Genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout are found in streams on top of the landmark, which stretches across tens of thousands of acres through varying elevations and diverse vegetation of sagebrush, pinion and juniper woodlands, aspen stands, and Douglas firs. The Roan Plateau rises to roughly 9,000 above sea level and is a hunting, fishing and recreation destination, helping contribute to the nearly $7 billion spent on outdoor recreation in northwest Colorado.

Saving special places

Sometimes called Colorado’s elk factory, the 220,000-acre Thompson Divide is old-growth forest that is home to sizeable portion of the state’s black-bear population. The Thompson Divide, which provides critical wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, grazing lands, clean air and water, is a crucial part of the area’s economy and culture.

A decision by the Bureau of Land Management cancels 25 oil and gas leases in Colorado's Thompson Divide, which has important fish and wildlife habitat. Image: EcoFlight

A decision by the Bureau of Land Management cancels 25 oil and gas leases in Colorado’s Thompson Divide, which has important fish and wildlife habitat. Photo by EcoFlight

The management plan announced by Interior for the Thompson Divide cancels 25 oil and gas leases found to be illegally issued. However, conservation organizations are concerned that other leases in the area weren’t withdrawn.

“Important fish and wildlife habitat will be affected by development of the remaining leases, including winter range for elk and mule deer, elk production areas, as well as vital range for bighorn sheep, moose, black bear and lynx,” Zimmerman says.

Roan Plateau

Roan Plateau. Photo by Colorado Environmental Coalition

Just the day before the Thompson Divide announcement, the BLM canceled oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in northwestern Montana. The area provides habitat for grizzlies, wolves, lynx, wolverines, elk and deer and is sacred to the Blackfeet tribe. Devon Energy Corp. worked with Interior and the tribe and will receive refunds for the leases, which were never developed.

While we face the unknowns of a new federal administration and its potential impacts on our natural world, here’s something we do know: we have helped conserve core habitat that sustains some of the West’s most impressive fish and wildlife populations and landscapes that give us space to get outdoors and reconnect to fundamental truths about our world and our place in it. Working to keep America’s public lands public, our fish and wildlife thriving and the outdoor recreation economy going to benefit rural communities doesn’t just make sense: it’s imperative.

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