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WildEarth Guardians tells BLM: Permanently prohibit all oil and gas development to protect the habitat of endangered fish and wildlife on the Refuge
Albuquerque, NM - Bitter Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and the unique fish and wildlife that depend on it would be harmed by oil and gas development that would be permitted immediately adjacent to the Refuge under a draft management plan recently released by the Roswell office of the Bureau of Land Management. WildEarth Guardians told the BLM, in comments sent to the agency this week, that it should permanently prohibit all oil and gas development in a 'source water protection zone' identified as critical to endangered fish and wildlife on the Refuge.
The draft management plan was prepared to comply with an Endangered Species Act requirement put in place in 1997 that called on the BLM to close lands to oil and gas drilling that are within the wetland source water zones for Bitter Lakes to drilling, until protective measures can ensure no aquifer contamination. The "source water protection zone" was designated to protect the habitat of at least four different endangered species protected under the ESA.
WildEarth Guardians alleges that the BLM's proposed plan-by allowing oil and gas drilling that could contaminate spring waters that the endangered fish and aquatic snails rely on-would violate the Endangered Species Act requirement to ensure that no harm is done to endangered wildlife.
"The effects of numerous well bores into the underlying aquifer are unknown. All of these waters are connected, and accidental contamination will be impossible to contain and would lead to the contamination of the Refuge," says Hamilton Smith, a conservation biologist with WildEarth Guardians. A memo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service echoes these concerns, stating, "given the multitude of interacting, cumulative impacts resulting from this project, it would be difficult not to recognize the significant impacts…we believe that a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement is required".
Although the plan does not itself permit individual oil and gas wells to be drilled it would open an area that is currently off-limits to oil and gas development. Up to 100 wells would be allowed under the proposed action throughout the Habitat Protection Zone. The threats to the watershed are compounded by increased surface disturbance, erosion, fragmentation of wildlife habitat, and increased access to prohibited ORV uses.
Yates Drilling, the same company that is pressuring the BLM to allow for intensive oil and gas development of the pristine Chihuahuan desert grasslands of Otero Mesa, is also leading the surge to develop public lands adjacent to Bitter Lakes NWR. "This is just another example of the Bush Energy plan putting oil and gas industry profits ahead of protection for environmentally sensitive public lands," said Hamilton Smith.
Bitter Lakes NWR harbors close to 300 breeding and migratory bird species, 24 species of fish, and incredible array of plants, mammals and invertebrates. Brackish waters in gypsum sinkholes host aquatic species, many of which are marine in origin, and have been preserved in this inland oasis. There are 25 special status species (federal and/or state) documented on the refuge.