Activists blast drilling on federal lands in West

Activists blast drilling on federal lands in West

Environmental groups are blaming loss of wildlife habitat and fewer hunting spots in the West on Bush administration energy policies that spurred a boom in oil and gas drilling.

Drilling on federal lands in five Western states doubled over the past decade to more than 2,000 wells per year, according to a report released Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group and the National Wildlife Federation.

The “rush to drill” in Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico is squeezing hunters off public land and destroying crucial habitat for species including pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk and sage grouse, the report says.

“What we’ve seen is runaway drilling on many of our public lands that has turned these areas into industrial zones where hunters and wildlife are pushed out,” said Dusty Horwitt with the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C.

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees most drilling in the West, said the boom was a result not of actions by the agency but of market forces that driven up worldwide demand for oil and gas.

The BLM attempts to balance the nation’s energy needs with concerns about development and conducts long environmental reviews before allowing projects, spokeswoman Celia Boddington said.

“When we lease land now, it’s very, very different from the drilling of wells even a decade ago,” Boddington said. Science is improving and the land is reclaimed after drilling, she said.

The 19-state Western Governors Association recently urged the Bush administration to end automatic waivers of some environmental reviews for oil and gas projects. And over the past two months, Democrats in Congress held hearings to highlight what they call the oil and gas industry’s harm to the landscape and those who hunt on it.

The report attributes an increase in drilling activity in wildlife habitat areas to an aggressive push by the Bush administration to give it priority over other uses, such as hunting. It cites a memo issued by a BLM official in Utah, who wrote, “staff need to understand that when an oil or gas lease parcel … comes in the door, that this work is their No. 1 priority.”

Research in Wyoming and Montana shows two frequently hunted species ”” sage grouse and mule deer ”” declining in areas of intensive oil and gas exploration, including the Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming.

“George Bush has lowered the bar down to the ground, and you can just step over it,” said Chris Marchion, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation.

A BLM official in Wyoming, Steven Hall, said any mule deer decline in the Pinedale Anticline appears to have been offset by a statewide increase, as tracked over the past decade by state officials.

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