Feds: Prairie dog no barrier to drilling on Colorado refuge | AspenTimes.com

Feds: Prairie dog no barrier to drilling on Colorado refuge

The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Federal officials say energy exploration on a southern Colorado wildlife refuge won’t have significant environmental effects, despite the presence of a prairie dog deemed eligible for federal protection.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday that an analysis of the Gunnison’s prairie dog didn’t change its decision that drilling two exploratory wells on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge would have no significant environmental impacts. The agency says a detailed analysis of the effects on the prairie dog were inadvertently left out of the earlier finding.

Federal officials have said the Gunnison’s prairie dog found at higher elevations in Colorado and New Mexico qualifies for protection as an endangered species, but other species are higher priority.

The refuge about 200 miles southwest of Denver is home to several colonies of Gunnison’s prairie dogs, but the only one within the planned exploration area is about three miles from the nearest well site, Fish and Wildlife said.

Federal officials said they will monitor the situation to see if emergency measures are needed to protect the prairie dogs.

Environmentalists oppose plans by Toronto-based Lexam Explorations to drill two exploratory natural gas wells on the wildlife refuge next to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. They’re concerned about the effects on wildlife, air and water quality and on the national park.

Although the surface land is public, Lexam owns some of the minerals. Federal officials say the company acquired the minerals before the area was designated as a refuge and national park.

The law gives a mineral owner or lessee the right to reasonable use of the surface to extract minerals.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Mike Blenden said the agency would prepare an environmental impact statement, a more thorough analysis, if Lexam wanted to take the next step and start producing natural gas.

Baca National Wildlife Refuge was created in 2004 with the acquisition of the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch. Some 31,000 acres of that ranch became part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, previously a national monument, and the rest became the wildlife refuge.

The national park includes 750-foot dunes, North America’s tallest.

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