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Group pushing BLM to restrict drilling on sage grouse habitat

Oct 29, 2013 - By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

The initial focus is in the Douglas area, but land in Fremont County likely would be affected if the federal agency imposed the restrictions.

The environmental group WildEarth Guardians has asked the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to postpone approving and then impose restrictions on oil drilling in designated sage grouse habitat east of Douglas.

Any action to that effect by the court could affect similar plans in Fremont County, where areas near Hudson and elsewhere are both prime sage grouse habitat and potential oil or natural gas development.

BLM officials say they are reviewing the request but haven't been planning to approve Chesapeake Energy's handful of pending federal drilling permits in the Douglas Core Area any time soon.

"We really haven't started working them yet because we have such a big backlog of permits to get through," Joe Meyer, manager of the BLM's Casper Field Office, said Monday of the company's plans to drill in the core area.

A recent agreement between Chesapeake and the Wyoming governor's office, however, could allow hundreds of new oil wells in the Douglas Core Area in years to come.

The Hudson habitat is not part of the Douglas core area, but is immediately adjacent to it.

"Just because the state of Wyoming falls down on the job in terms of protecting sage grouse core area habitat doesn't make it acceptable for the Bureau of Land Management to do that for the public lands and minerals," Erik Molvar with the group said.

WildEarth Guardians formally asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Interim BLM Director Neil Kornze on Thursday to postpone approving new roads or well pads in the Douglas Core Area. The core area covers about 140 square miles of rolling sagebrush country targeted for oil development.

Wyoming officials have designated 31 such areas statewide that contain sage grouse leks, or breeding areas, and abundant sagebrush as core sage grouse habitat. Restrictions on development in core areas include not allowing more than one well pad per square mile.

The goal of the strategy is to help sage grouse sufficiently to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the birds don't need federal protection.

The BLM has praised the core area strategy and is adopting it throughout the state. BLM officials expect to finish that process next year. WildEarth Guardians has asked Interior to wait on the well pads and roads until that happens.

After that, the group says, the BLM should follow several conditions for approving new drilling within the Douglas Core Area, including restrictions on work during nesting and breeding seasons.

Additional development of as-yet undeveloped land in the core area, on the other hand, will preclude core area protections from being "a viable alternative to listing under the Endangered Species Act," the group's letter states.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a 2015 deadline to decide whether to protect the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species. On Friday, Fish and Wildlife announced that it proposes to list greater sage grouse in Nevada and California as threatened.

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