OIL AND GAS:

BLM failed to meet 'adaptive management' pledge in Wyo. development plan -- lawsuit

Environmentalists have charged the Bureau of Land Management with mishandling it adaptive management program for Wyoming's Pinedale Anticline by overpermitting oil and gas development in the environmentally sensitive area.

In a legal brief filed in its ongoing case against the Interior Department, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said BLM abandoned commitments it made in 2000 to take actions to protect sage grouse, mule deer and other sensitive species in the 198,000-acre Pinedale Anticline of southwest Wyoming.

TRCP sued the Interior Department in June 2008 over the drilling program, saying it violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and amended its complaint last November, when Interior expanded drilling opportunities to an additional 12,000 acres.

While critics had hoped the Obama administration would change course in Pinedale, so far the Interior Department has allowed the project to go forward. Cindy Wertz, a spokeswoman with BLM's Wyoming state office, declined to comment citing agency policy not to respond to ongoing litigation. Oral arguments are expected in the case next spring.

The "adaptive environmental management" program was intended to allow oil and gas development to proceed while maintaining protections for wildlife. A core tenet of adaptive management is that wildlife regulations could be adapted to meet on-the-ground conditions. But TRCP maintains that wildlife populations have declined as a result of expanding oil and gas development.

Mule deer, for example, have declined by 30 percent in the project area since development began, according to a government analysis released earlier this year by TRCP (Land Letter, Feb. 26). As a result, hunting opportunities have declined, the group says.

"Development in the Pinedale Anticline has proceeded without checks that the adaptive management process was intended to provide. Big-game and upland bird populations are suffering, and hunting opportunities are declining," Rollin Sparrowe, a TRCP board member and former federal biologist who lives near the project site, said in a statement.

TRCP accuses BLM of failing to implement effective adaptive management programs as early as 2000, when the region was first opened to oil and gas development, and it made conditions worse in 2008 when it authorized the expansion of development in the Pinedale area. "This is unacceptable and goes against federal law," Sparrowe said. "The government must be held accountable for promises it makes to the American people."

The conservation group also accuses BLM of ignoring scientific evidence showing that oil and gas activities would have a negative effect on wildlife. "In essence, the BLM ignored peer-reviewed, current science, and its decisions resulted in huge profits for industry -- at the public's expense," said TRCP Senior Vice President Tom Franklin. "Our shared fish and wildlife resources were sold, at great cost to American citizens and our collective outdoor heritage."

Click here to read the TRCP brief.

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