DENVER - The leasing of public land for oil and gas drilling on large tracts of wildlife-rich northwest Colorado is a growing threat to the state's heritage and an important part of the economy, the Colorado Wildlife Federation said in a report released this week.
The data show that 41 percent of the 4.9 million-acre Piceance Basin has been leased. The report was compiled from state oil and gas records, information from the state Division of Wildlife and peer-reviewed research.
"Many Coloradans don't realize the extent to which our irreplaceable wildlife habitat on northwest Colorado's public lands has already been impacted by energy development or how much habitat has already been leased for drilling," said Suzanne O'Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
The report's release comes as the oil and natural gas industry is assailing state and federal policies on grounds they hinder energy development on public lands. The Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said the Interior Department's new policies requiring more scrutiny of leases on federal lands will further delay development of "clean, domestic natural gas on Western federal lands."
New state regulations require energy companies to consult with state wildlife officials on minimizing the effects of development in key habitat.
The oil and gas industry has condemned the rules as burdensome, while wildlife advocates said protections were scaled back after the industry complained.
The Piceance Basin, where drilling hit record rates before the recession, has been called a mule-deer factory by state biologists because of the thousands of deer that live there.
State wildlife officials estimate that nearly 57,000 mule deer made the basin home last year. The roughly 50,000 elk that roam the basin and areas to the east are North America's largest migratory elk herd, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
The wildlife group's report also focuses on Colorado River cutthroat trout and the greater sage grouse, which are under review for possible federal protection.
Northwestern Colorado, which attracts hunters and anglers from across the country, contributes a big chunk of the $1.8 billion in direct and indirect economic benefits that hunting and fishing generated in 2007, according to a state-commissioned study.
But the habitat generating that money is being changed by the pace and scope of energy development, said John Ellenberger, a member of the wildlife group and the state's former big game manager.
At least 40 percent of important winter range, mating and birthing areas for deer, elk and sage grouse in the Piceance Basin has been leased, according to the report. Leases on five, 160-acre parcels for oil shale research and development have been granted.
About 21 percent of the federal land has been leased in a 4.2 million-acre region called the Little Snake Resource Area, in Colorado's northwest corner and north of the Piceance.
The wildlife group estimates that 32 percent of the greater sage grouse's leks, or mating grounds, and 18 percent to 28 percent of critical mule deer and elk range are under lease in the Little Snake area.
Damage to land in drainage areas that feed into streams inhabited by cutthroat trout "could compromise the ability for the streams to support cutthroat trout in the future," according to the report.
Environmentalists said because a majority of the federal land leased by oil and gas companies isn't in production, companies shouldn't tie up more until they develop existing leases.
Drilling has slowed significantly in western Colorado, where natural gas development was booming before the recession. During the boom, conservation, hunting and angling groups wrote guidelines for development in wildlife habitat that eventually were included in 2007 state laws mandating an overhaul of oil and gas regulations.
Republican gubernatorial candidates Scott McInnis and Dan Maes have called the regulations punitive and said they will review them if elected. Democratic candidate John Hickenlooper told The Durango Herald last week that he doesn't support all the regulations, which took effect last April.
"We've characterized the rules as minimum protections," O'Neill said.
Jon Bargas, spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said most energy companies "go above and beyond" requirements for drilling in wildlife habitat.
"Our goal is to ensure that while responsible energy development continues, corresponding efforts are made to improve and protect wildlife habitat," Bargas said.