Protecting the Piceance


The dirt roads cutting across the Piceance Basin, a lucrative oil and gas reserve in northwestern Colorado, spread like veins, running through patches of green shrubs and tracing the tops of hard ridgelines. Some lead to active drill sites, with metal rigs thrusting skyward. Others end at patches of brown earth that show signs of returning to their natural state – the slow-healing scars of old drill sites.

I’m in the backseat of a four-seat plane, cruising at 10,000 feet above ground. In the seat in front of me is Nick Payne, wearing a green Patagonia sweater and gray cap, a black headset hugging his ears. He works for the nonprofit Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a group that advocates for conserving hunting and fishing areas, and is flanked by Gary Kraft from Ecoflight, who’s manning the wheel of this dainty bird.

The basin has long provided hunters with access to the state’s prime migratory mule deer herd, along with elk and sage grouse. Mule deer numbers have been declining over past decades, and Payne is concerned oil and gas development will make matters worse. To conserve the herds and the hunting grounds, Payne’s organization is proposing the Bureau of Land Management adopt a new type of protection. Called “backcountry conservation areas,” the designation would restrict oil and gas companies that lease within a BCA from building roads or surface infrastructure. The group has proposed such designations across almost 230,000 acres of the 1.5 million administered by the BLM's White River Field Office. Drillers could, however, still access oil and gas reserves in these areas, through the use of directional drilling, which lets drillers burrow horizontally under the ground.

The protected zones would keep areas for key fish and wildlife intact and provide “opportunities for solitude" for hunters and fishermen, explains Payne, over a cup of coffee after the flight. The BCAs are based in areas that are key migration, calving and winter habitat spots for elk and mule deer. They would also protect endangered Colorado River cutthroat trout and sage grouse populations.

Such protections would help ensure that hunting and fishing businesses in the region don’t lose out during the “boom-bust cycle of energy development,” says Payne.

The TRCP proposal comes in the face of increasing oil and gas development in the Piceance and surrounds. Back in 1997, the BLM predicted that the basin would see 1,100 new oil and gas wells drilled over 20 years. That projection proved modest, to say the least. Revised BLM numbers from 2007 indicate that there could be more than 20,000 wells drilled in the Basin by 2028, with an average of eight wells on each “pad.”

To manage increasing development, the BLM’s White River Field Office is in the process of amending its 1997 Resource Management Plan, and a draft is up for public comment. The draft proposes a suite of measures to protect wildlife, with an aim to keep big game populations at 70 percent of what Colorado Parks and Wildlife has as its “long-term population objective.” It would limit drilling in big game range during certain winter and summer months. Oil and gas companies, however, could be exempt from these limitations if they restrict their surface operations to 25 percent or less of deer habitat on lease areas.

“There are a lot of ways to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas development while still allowing it,” says Kent Walter, field manager at BLM’s White River Field Office. “We want to concentrate development and focus it in a spatially limited area.” Allowing operators, who stick to the habitat restrictions, to drill year round also means they don’t have to tear down rigs, move somewhere else and return later, creating more disturbances.

The comment period for the BLM’s proposal ends January 28 next year. The agency is considering the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s proposal along with other public comments, says Walter. A record of decision on the amendment is due in September 2014.

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Image courtesy Ecoflight.

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