Wednesday, May 21, 2008

BLM mulls grazing, drilling limits

Energy producers in the Powder River Basin got an unwelcome surprise this week when they found out that new drilling restrictions — possibly affecting about 1 million acres — likely will be going into effect to help protect sage grouse.

Some grazing allotments might also be impacted, according to the Buffalo field office of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that administers the federal government’s subsurface resources in the Powder River Basin.

Paul Beels, associate field manager for the BLM, said Tuesday that the agency has decided a new management plan designed to deal with sage grouse issues is necessary to prevent the grouse from being added to the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We have been studying this now for several years and have come to the conclusion that the 1995 Resource Management Plan that we are using might not be enough to keep them from being listed,” he said.

The new restrictions will take the form of an “interim management plan,” and could include limiting oil and gas permits, limiting right-of-way grants and changing grazing leases to protect high-quality grouse habitat, Beels said.

They will be in effect for the two to three years it will take to develop and complete a new sage grouse amendment to the BLM’s management plan, “so as not to compromise the alternatives” that the plan might adopt.

He said that the boundaries of the interim management plan have not yet been determined, but are concentrated in the southwestern portion of the Basin. The proposed boundary is not contiguous, he said, and may include scattered areas outside the main boundary.

The BLM has heavily used the research from a University of Montana wildlife biology professor, Dave Naugle, whose work has suggested that up to 60 percent of active sage grouse breeding grounds, or leks, are being abandoned in areas of oil and gas development. Naugle’s work suggests that the grouse often disappear completely after abandoning their leks.

John Kennedy with the Gillette-based Kennedy Oil company said he had just heard about the plans Tuesday.

“Even though I have most of my developments up in the northeast ares near Sheridan and there are very few grouse up there doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “They could study it for a few years to decide if I have grouse and shut me down anyhow.”

Kennedy said that in the face of natural gas shortages in the country, it doesn’t make sense to him to make it harder to produce energy.

“The whole thing is over-regulation and over-reaction,” he said.

A stakeholders meeting will be at 10:30 a.m. May 28 at the Bozeman Trail Conference Center at 655 E Hart St. in Buffalo, where the public can comment on the proposed management plan.

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