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Review Board Says BLM Ignored Endangered Species Impacts From Oil and Gas Leases
DENVER - Based on a decision made public late last week, Colorado's endangered black-footed ferrets will be protected from oil and gas drilling - for now. The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) own internal review board, the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), overturned the BLM's May 2006 sale of oil and gas drilling leases in an area where endangered black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced in Colorado.
Despite the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) urging that ferret habitat be excluded from the lease sale, the BLM went ahead and sold drilling leases to the highest bidder. The ferrets, considered North America's most endangered species, were reintroduced to Colorado in 2001 and an active program to recover populations to self-sustaining levels is underway.
The IBLA found that the BLM broke the law by selling the leases "without any record evidence that it ever responded to or even considered FWS's views." The board found the action illegal because "an expert sister agency urged that leasing be deferred" in the ferret habitat, but BLM did not "explain its rejection of FWS' views. BLM again failed to consider new information". The decision cited the Service's warning that "Introduction of an additional disturbance factor at this critical stage in the establishment of ferrets in this area could prove to be detrimental."
"Many people have worked very hard to restore the ferret to Colorado, but even our most endangered wildlife has been offered up by the BLM in the rush to drill," said Erin Robertson of Center for Native Ecosystems. "Now the BLM must reconsider before allowing the home of Colorado's only black-footed ferrets to become a wellfield."
Once found in prairie dog colonies from Canada to Mexico, the ferret was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered in Wyoming in 1981. By 1987 only 18 ferrets were left in the wild, and they were all captured and brought into captivity. Ferrets have since been reintroduced to less than a dozen sites, including the Wolf Creek population in northwestern Colorado near Rangely. Since 2001, 237 black-footed ferrets have been released in the Wolf Creek area, and wild-born ferret kits were first found there in 2005. But the ferret's status in Colorado is precarious - only 16 ferrets were confirmed to be present in the reintroduction area at the end of 2007.
This ruling overturns the BLM's decison to include 63,000 acres of black-footed ferret habitat, including most of the Wolf Creek reintroduction area and potential ferret reintroduction habitat in the Little Snake area near Craig, in a lease sale of nearly 200,000 acres for primarily natural gas drilling.
"BLM insisted on arguing for industry's right to drill this land, instead of listening to ideas on protecting the most endangered mammal in North America," said attorney Mike Chiropolos of Western Resource Advocates, who represented the conservation groups on their appeal. "Industry should responsibly drill the lands they already control before grabbing habitat for endangered wildlife like the ferret."
The oil and gas industry has stocked up on lease holdings under the Bush administration without actually drilling in many of the areas they control. In Colorado, industry already has leased over four million acres of federal lands, but 71% of this acreage has not been drilled yet. The Wolf Creek ferret reintroduction area occurs within the White River Field Office of the BLM, where 90% of BLM lands are open to drilling. Similarly, 93% of the Little Snake Field Office of the BLM is open to drilling.
But the land rush is on. The White River Field Office of the BLM, where the Wolf Creek ferret reintroduction area occurs, is amending its management plan because 1997 projections of 1,100 new wells in this part of northwestern Colorado have grown outdated; now industry expects to drill more than 20,000 wells here in the next 20 years.
"Even if we drilled every last bit of our land and coasts, our country would not produce enough petroleum energy to keep up with demand," said Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians. "It is ridiculous that citizens have to force the BLM to listen to experts like the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure endangered species don't get drilled into extinction."
The Center for Native Ecosystems (Denver, CO), WildEarth Guardians (Santa Fe, NM), and The Wilderness Society (Washington, D.C.) appealed the BLM sale to the IBLA. They were represented by an attorney from Western Resource Advocates (Boulder, CO).
Center for Native Ecosystems and Western Resource Advocates secured a similar victory protecting black-footed ferrets in another ferret reintroduction area on BLM lands near Vernal, Utah from oil and gas drilling in 2006.
For more information including the decision, appeal, high-resolution photo of a ferret, and map of the area, please visit: www.nativeecosystems.org/species/black-footed-ferret/index_html/