BLM: Plan could cut deer habitat on Roan Plateau |

BLM: Plan could cut deer habitat on Roan Plateau

Dennis WebbGlenwood Springs correspondent

A proposed management plan for the Roan Plateau could reduce mule deer numbers there by a third, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.The BLM says the decline could occur under Alternative 3, its preferred draft management plan for the plateau planning area.The estimate applies to the 73,600 acres of federal land in the planning area, which also includes about 53,400 acres of private land.A draft environmental impact statement for the planning area finds that 34 percent of the federal acreage and 46 percent of the total acreage are critical winter range for deer.Oil and gas development and other activity envisioned in Alternative 3 would reduce that range, the BLM says in its draft plan.”Mule deer winter range could undergo an effective loss of 36 percent on BLM lands in the planning area, a moderate to potentially major impact in terms of reduced carrying capacity of this limited resource,” the BLM stated in its draft plan.Any hit to deer numbers on the plateau would come at a time when the animal is slowly rebounding from a population decline in the 1990s.Deer numbers have fluctuated historically because of periodic drought and severe winters.”Local populations in the planning area and throughout Colorado have followed that trend, but in recent years their numbers have not rebounded as quickly as in the past,” the BLM draft says.That has been true for a Colorado Division of Wildlife data analysis unit that includes the plateau planning area, the BLM reports. Deer numbers in that area fell from 22,300 to 11,000 from 1990-96, and since have risen to 13,300.Keith Goddard, a Rifle outfitter and state chairman of the Colorado Mule Deer Association, said the association has worked hard to help deer begin to recover. He voiced frustration that the BLM has proposed a plateau plan that could hamper that recovery despite efforts by groups like his to seek adequate protections for deer and other wildlife on the plateau.”We said what we wanted, now we’re being told what we’re going to get,” he said.BLM officials say they welcome comment on the draft plan, and not just on Alternative 3. Another alternative, which would result in little change to how the plateau is now being managed, would have only minor impacts on deer and other large mammals, the plan states.Greg Wright, an employee of Timberline Sporting Goods in Rifle, isn’t too concerned about the impacts new drilling in the area of the plateau will have on deer. He said he doesn’t think drilling that’s already occurring in western Garfield County is deterring either deer or hunters and that he doubts drilling is any worse than building subdivisions.Division of Wildlife officials have cited loss of habitat, including from new subdivisions, as a reason for the decline of deer in the 1990s.As the BLM was working on its draft plan, some DOW employees voiced fears about drilling impacting wildlife in the plateau planning area. Greg Walcher, then director of the state Department of Natural Resources, reportedly watered down comments when the DNR submitted a position statement to the BLM.”From the pieces I could gather, it was a kick in their face,” Goddard said. He’s hoping the DNR will take a different position now that Rifle resident Russell George is the DNR director.DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said the DNR is reconvening a working group involving the DOW, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and other DNR agencies with an interest in the plateau plan. DNR representatives also will consult with others involved in the plan, such as Garfield County, Rifle and Parachute.George and DOW director Bruce McCloskey are committed to development comments on the draft plan that will fairly reflect the opinions of employees in all of the DNR’s participating divisions, Malmsbury said.Much of the debate over Alternative 3 has been over the fact that it would allow drilling on the plateau top, although not until much of the drilling anticipated in the surrounding lowlands has taken place. But that lower-elevation drilling poses a big threat to the winter range of deer. Nearly two-thirds of the BLM land below the plateau rim is critical winter range for deer.The BLM projects that under Alternative 3, 1,273 wells could be drilled from 363 well pads below the plateau rim, and 51 from 39 pads on top.Goddard is concerned about drilling on the plateau top as well. He said the entire top is a calving and fawning area for deer.Goddard said he recognizes that drilling will occur on the plateau and has proposed limiting well pads to one per 640 acres. Alternative 3 would result in an average of about one well pad per 160 acres across the planning area, although densities could be far greater in some areas and drilling would be banned from other areas.Hunting, fishing and other tourism and recreation activities have provided an economic base for places such as Rifle even as other industries such as oil shale have gone bust, Goddard said. He worries that excessive drilling could jeopardize the future of these activities.Already, he said, he hears from hunters who say they don’t plan on returning to parts of western Garfield County that are starting to undergo heavy drilling.The BLM emphasized that estimating the impact of drilling on deer in the planning area is difficult. Goddard said he fears the actual population decline could be far greater, although he said a decline of even 1 percent would be too much.”The wildlife always takes a back seat to everything. It’s too bad the wildlife can’t come to the meetings and represent itself, because it’s sure not being represented.”