OIL AND GAS:

Sportsmen challenge Utah parcels for lease

Continuing the battle over oil and gas drilling on public lands in Utah, a hunting and fishing group yesterday filed an official protest of 26,000 acres scheduled to be auctioned soon and cited the need for more planning in crucial wildlife habitat.

The lands are scheduled to be offered in a Bureau of Land Management lease sale on Aug. 18 that includes 37 proposed parcels totaling 50,647 acres. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said the protested acres provide valuable habitat for mule deer, elk, pronghorn, sage grouse and Gunnison sage grouse. A Utah BLM spokesman said that was the only protest received on the upcoming sale.

When protests are filed, the leases can still be sold at auction, but BLM Utah would delay issuing leases until all protests are resolved.

Joel Webster, associate director of campaigns for the TRCP Center for Western Lands, said his group supports responsibly planned energy development.

"Our worry with these Utah leases, however, is that advance planning and adequate stipulations for wildlife and recreational resources have not been established prior to the lands being opened to development," he said in a statement. "History indicates that after public lands are leased, very little can be done to address the course of subsequent development on other values and uses like wildlife habitats and hunting."

The protest includes about 9,000 acres of pronghorn habitat in Utah's West Desert region, which is overseen by the BLM's Fillmore Field Office. Since 2007, the group has been requesting that the BLM undertake up-front planning to ensure the area's responsible energy development and sustain activities such as hunting and fishing. Other leases objected to by the sportsmen are located on mule deer and elk winter range in Utah's Book Cliffs and in Gunnison sage grouse habitat southeast of Moab.

"We find it disheartening to be continually addressing the same issues with the BLM over and over again," Webster said. "Models for development exist that would enable the leasing and extraction of these energy reserves in a way that conserves traditional public uses of these lands and the valuable habitat for the critters that inhabit them."

Battles over leasing in Utah have been raging all year. In January, a federal district court issued a temporary injunction against the sale of 77 Utah parcels that had been included in a December auction after environmental groups challenged them in court. In February, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed that the leases be withdrawn and bonus payments be returned to the bidders and ordered the review of the parcels.

That sparked several lawsuits from industry groups and public officials in the counties where the leases were issued. Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) blocked the nomination of David Hayes to be Interior deputy secretary for nearly two months over the matter. A multidisciplinary team of BLM officials made an unusual visit to each of the parcels and will make recommendations on whether they should be offered for lease again.

And in June, BLM suspended the sales of 31 other parcels of Utah lands immediately after auctioning them amid fears that the parcels overlap with critical wildlife habitat (Greenwire, June 24).

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