Energy company stakes out wildlife refuge

  Iridescent dragonflies, shimmering wetlands, and the many imperiled species that call a southeastern New Mexico wildlife refuge home may soon have a new neighbor: gas wells.

Yates Petroleum Co., based in Artesia, N.M., told U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials last month it plans to drill two wells in Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge — one of them just a quarter-mile from the visitor center. The company has yet to file for the required permits, but its surveyor has staked out the locations of wells it is hoping to drill under leases issued by the state, which retained the mineral rights when the land became a federal refuge.

Those plans concern refuge managers and Wildlife Service biologists, who wonder if the refuge’s rare species, which include two diminutive snails listed under the Endangered Species Act and several state-protected fish, can survive in springs that could be contaminated by brine and other drilling byproducts.

"They’re proposing to drill through the aquifer that is feeding those springs," says Paul Tashjian, a hydrologist with Wildlife Service’s water resources office in Albuquerque. Yates must receive permits from New Mexico’s oil and gas conservation division before it can drill, and from the Fish and Wildlife Service to build roads and drill pads. Both agencies say that if they give the project the go-ahead, they will attach stipulations to protect the springs.

Yates has a long history with Bitter Lake. In 1982, the company attracted national attention and a federal citation for trespassing after it erected a drill rig within the refuge without federal permits.

Yates officials did not return calls for this story.