BLM issues final decision for Little Snake plan

RBC | A BLM decision about about the future of energy development along the Little Snake River in northwest Colorado has raised concerns and questions about environmental and wildlife protection in the area.
The Little Snake River, a tributary of the Yampa River, is approximately 150 miles long. It rises near the continental divide in northern Routt County and flows west along the Wyoming-Colorado state line, flowing past the Wyoming towns of Dixon and Baggs. It turns southwest and joins the Yampa approximately 45 miles west of Craig, Colo., just east of Dinosaur National Monument.
The Bureau of Land Management’s record of decision about the Little Snake Resource Management Plan was released this week, the final step in an extensive, multi-year effort to develop a resource management plan for the 1.3 million acres of public lands administered by the Little Snake Field Office in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco Counties.
The BLM’s Little Snake Field Office manages nearly 2.3 million acres of public lands and federal minerals in northwest Colorado—an area equivalent in size to Yellowstone National Park. Major issues include energy and mineral development, transportation and travel management and wildlife habitat – particularly for sage grouse, mule deer, and elk.
The plan opens roughly 90 percent of the lands and minerals managed by the field office to oil and gas leasing and development. Local residents are split between support for the BLM decision that will encourage further energy development in the area and concerns that the plan does not do enough to protect the wildlife resources that attract hunters and anglers to the region.
“Nobody is saying that oil and gas development should not happen in northwest Colorado,” said Moffat County rancher Wes McStay. “We only want it if it is kept out of our most sensitive landscapes such as Vermillion Basin. This plan recognizes that we must balance energy development with the things that make this area such a great place to live — not only the beautiful vistas, but the clean air and water and the outstanding and healthy wildlife resources.”
But even residents like McStay who support the plan, can agree with the concerns of wildlife biologists, who believe the  plan doesn’t provide enough protection for greater sage-grouse, mule deer and elk.
“Colorado’s largest population of sage-grouse will be threatened by oil and gas drilling under the plan, increasing the likelihood that the bird will need to be protected under the Endangered Species Act,” said Ken Strom, director of Audubon Colorado. “BLM could build sound conservation measures into its management plans and thus make it unnecessary to protect the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act, but they have failed to do so in this case.”
Greater sage-grouse recently became candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Full endangered species protection is expected in 2015.
In addition, a recent study by wildlife biologists found that mule deer and antelope herds on both sides of the Colorado-Wyoming border are declining.
“Analysis of the Little Snake deer herd shows that it has been in poor performance and steady decline since the early 1990s, and that long-term population goals are probably unreachable without ‘drastic’ management changes. Colorado’s business and hunters need BLM to work to change these alarming trends, not to exacerbate them by declining to take reasonable steps to conserve remaining public land habitat,” said Michael Saul, associate counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.