Protections Sought for “Serengeti of Colorado”

Judith Kohler is the NWF regional public lands communications manager based in Boulder, Colo., and is NWF’s member of the communications team for Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, which includes Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Before joining NWF in August, she covered energy, the environment and politics for The Associated Press in Colorado and Wyoming.

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Until four years ago, I hadn’t spent more than an hour in North Park. The 8,000-foot-high valley stretching to the snow-capped peaks of the Park and Never Summer ranges and the Medicine Bow and Rabbit Ears mountains is stunning. The area in northern Colorado is also out of the way, about 150 miles northwest of Denver and practically in Wyoming.

But in 2007, I drove to North Park to overnight in Walden (population roughly 650) and woke up early the next day for a visit to a greater sage-grouse lek, or mating ground. The male birds puff out their white-ruffed throat sacs, flare their pointy tails and try to look manly for the females checking them out. Stumbling through the early-morning darkness to the bird blind, the other ecotourists and I got another rare treat when we looked up – a pitch-black sky studded with dazzling, bright stars.

Folks, we’re not in Denver anymore.

You throw in world-class fishing, about 500 moose, thousands of mule deer, elk and pronghorn, thousands of ducks, geese and other birds on the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge south of Walden, and it’s clear why some sportsmen call North Park the Serengeti of Colorado.

Will it also become the Bakken field of Colorado? Oil has been produced there for decades, but new technology and a few high-flowing wells are fueling excitement about tapping the Niobrara formation under parts of Colorado and Wyoming. New wells have been drilled in North Park and more applications are pending.

A recent drive down Walden’s Main Street shows why some residents would welcome an energy boom. Although a few restaurants and gas stations were busy, thanks in part to hunters, several buildings were empty, not unlike numerous small towns across the West. Ramped-up drilling would generate jobs, although how many would go to locals and how many to seasoned workers who travel among energy hot spots is uncertain. The county could see higher tax revenue.

The nine hunting, angling and conservation groups that signed a letter Oct. 28 urging the Bureau of Land Management to safeguard the wildlife habitat don’t begrudge North Park getting an economic shot in the arm. They support responsible production of fuel that keeps vehicles and commerce rolling.

But what happens to the fishing, hunting, hiking, backpacking, rafting, wildlife watching and agriculture if wells are drilled and roads are built without consideration of long-term impacts on water, air and wildlife?

A report written by veteran wildlife biologists John Ellenberger and Gene Byrne for the National Wildlife Federation shows a downward trend over the last 30 years in the number of deer and pronghorns in the region. The grouse strutting their stuff in the sagebrush-dotted rolling hills have been in serious decline across the West for a while. The report warns more losses are likely if state and federal officials don’t consider the cumulative impacts of proposed oil, gas and wind-power projects.

The wildlife and scenery drew Karen Miller to North Park 20 years ago. The writer and early-childhood educator returned to her love of art and helps run the Green Otter Gallery with fellow artists in Walden. From children’s books by Miller to paintings and handmade cards, the gallery’s work celebrates the area’s natural beauty.

“It’s such a unique environment. It’s one of the best places in the state for wildlife because of the riparian habitat,” Miller says.

It’s also no place for wimps, especially in the winter. But even then, people enjoy the outdoors – snowmobiling, snowshoeing.

“And the summers are glorious. There are so many wildflowers,” Miller says.

And the wildlife is always ever-present, part of the lifestyle and entertainment, she adds. “People get together and say what they’ve seen – a moose in their yard or a bear on their porch.”

You can support consideration of wildlife and environmental concerns in North Park by urging the BLM to prepare a master leasing plan, which would look at landscape-scale impacts of oil and gas development, or approve Alternative C in the draft resource management plan for the area. The BLM is taking public comments until Jan. 17.