Big game amendment looks to limit energy industry’s impacts on elk, mule deer and pronghorn

Bureau of Land Management seeks public comments on big game conservation

Eliza Noe
Summit Daily
Elk graze next to Owl Creek Road after a recent snowfall.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

For the next few weeks, the Bureau of Land Management is asking for public comment regarding its decision to evaluate its oil and gas program and other management decisions across the state to promote the conservation of big game habitat.

Specifically, this will focus on elk, mule deer and pronghorn. Current plans do not include bighorn sheep. Phillips said that about 53% of the land managed by the bureau contains priority habitat for elk, 48% of it encompasses priority habitat for mule deer and about 9% of it consists of high-priority habitat for pronghorn. 

“One policy to mention is the Department of Interior released Secretarial Order 3362, called ‘Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors,’ and (it) was released in February of 2018,” Phillips said. “This order directed (the Bureau of Land Management) to look at ways — like limiting disturbance from development — to avoid or minimize potential negative impacts to big game crucial winter range and corridors and conserve habitat necessary to sustain populations, among other things. The order also asks (the Bureau of Land Management) to work cooperatively with the state to attain population goals during land management planning.”

Last year, the state released its Big Game Policy Report which recommended the bureau actually undertake this amendment to strengthen oil and gas lease stipulations consistent with new wildlife rules. Important habitat areas for these species provide seasonal habitat components necessary to support herd viability. For example, this can include “severe winter range,” where the large majority of big game animals are during the most harsh winters or “production habitat,” where good cover and foraging support elk during calving season. 

“The purpose of this effort, our preliminary purpose, is to really evaluate alternative management approaches for (Bureau of Land Management) oil and gas decisions,” she added. “Those planning skill decisions (are) to ultimately maintain, conserve and protect priority habitat areas for big game.”

Because Secretarial Order 3362 does not include bighorn sheep, it is currently not in the scope of this particular amendment, Shawn Wiser, a wildlife biologist with the bureau, said. However, bighorn sheep are included in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s recommendation to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts, and the public can input comments about why they should be included. 

“The bighorn sheep habitat is generally in low gas-potential areas,” Wiser said. “Eleven percent of the (Bureau of Land Management’s) land surface contains priority bighorn sheep habitat, and about 3% of that is currently leased.”

Wiser added that big game species tend to already avoid density, such as infrastructure and roads, and the avoidance increases as development increases. Despite this, she said studies show that game abundance can decline due to energy development despite aggressive on-site mitigation efforts. 

Those interested in submitting a public comment can submit a comment online at until Sept. 2.


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