Mule deer, grouse to fare better with buffer zones around drill rigs

Federal officials hope a groundbreaking management approach will help wildlife and oil and gas development better coexist in northwest Colorado’s Piceance Basin.

Under a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management, it would waive seasonal limits on drilling if energy companies agree to limit their total surface impacts within certain percentage thresholds of their total leased acres within a state game management unit.

The concept is part of an oil and gas management proposal by the White River Field Office, which has jurisdiction over BLM lands centered in Rio Blanco County and also covering parts of Garfield and Moffat counties.

It is geared toward protecting the state’s largest migratory mule deer herd, along with greater sage-grouse, which the BLM is trying to prevent from having to be added to the federal threatened and endangered species list.

Mule deer numbers in the area have been declining, and energy development is one of several factors believed to be taking a cumulative toll.

Seasonal drilling limits are one means of helping protect wildlife at crucial times of year. But they haven’t proven very compatible with energy companies’ preference these days to drill multiple, directional wells from the same pad.

That’s an approach that can reduce overall surface impacts, but it can be costly for companies if they can’t complete drilling on a pad in time and have to move rigs out and then bring them back in later. That also increases truck traffic and potential related effects including roadkill.

Under the threshold proposal, a company could drill year-round by agreeing to limit surface impacts at any one time to 25 percent of its leased acreage in certain deer habitat within a game management unit. These impacts would include things such as drilling and well completion, well pads awaiting further drilling, and areas that haven’t yet undergone interim reclamation.

The area within the acreage limit would include a 660-foot buffer around actual physical disturbance.

A similar threshold approach would apply to greater sage-grouse habitat.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said the idea is to reduce disturbance, cluster development and encourage prompt reclamation.

While the approach builds on measures implemented by the BLM elsewhere, this would be the first time it would be put in place across an entire field office’s jurisdiction.

Jason Oates, a regulatory group leader for Encana USA, said it would be a positive step for industry.

“It’s a huge benefit to us when you factor in the cost of moving in and out” a rig, he said.

Nicholas Payne, of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said regardless of such measures, the BLM is proposing to let a large amount of oil and gas development go on. Its preferred draft management alternative considers development of as many as 15,042 wells on 1,800 pads over 20 years.

Its proposal projects protecting enough habitat to sustain at least 70 percent of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s long-term big-game population objectives.

Payne said the possibility of another 30 percent drop in an already declining deer population “is hard to live with as a sportsman, as a hunter.”

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