Colorado oil and gas debate more civilized in the wild than in the capitol

Stepped-up natural gas drilling in northwestern Colorado can ripple-effect Denver politics, where wrangling over new drilling regulations last week took an ugly turn. But the ramifications for the nation’s largest deer and elk herds that roam there are often overlooked.

While humans like Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry – current and former candidates for the Colorado governor’s office – locked horns over a recent reception for the new president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), a new report from the Colorado Wildlife Federation (CWF) points out the perils for the state’s distinct mega-fauna.

mule deer

On the nearly 5 million acres of the gas-rich Piceance Basin, which stretchers over parts of Rio Blanco, Garfield, Moffat and Mesa counties, three huge mule deer herds range over nearly 920,000 acres and elk range on 1.3 million acres. Wildlife managers call the area “the deer factory.” Other species directly effected by the drilling include sage grouse and cutthroat trout.

More than 40 percent of the Piceance is leased for oil and gas production, including more than 54,000 acres of the Roan Plateau on the eastern edge of the Piceance in Garfield County that have yet to go into production. New state drilling regs compelling higher mitigation standards for wildlife habitat have become a political hot potato this election season.

“Fragmentation of northwest Colorado’s rich wildlife habitat, and the harms and demonstrable risks of such fragmentation, will continue as roads and infrastructure emerge on many of the leased parcels that have not been developed yet,” concluded the Wildlife Federation report entitled “Northwest Colorado’s Wildlife Habitat Today: Are We Losing Our Heritage?”

New Colorado Oil and Gas Association president Tisha Conoly Schuller pointed out that members of her lobby recognize the value of the habitat and have “donated funds with other Piceance companies to the [Colorado Division of Wildlife] for mule deer, sage grouse, and reclamation studies; conducted numerous sage grouse habitat improvement projects; and created drinking holes for wildlife to provide water sources which avoid crossing busy roads.”

But Conoly Schuller recently was left mitigating fallout from inviting the popular Democratic Hickenlooper to a COGA meeting that GOP gubernatorial frontrunner and former six-term Congressman Scott McInnis reportedly was unable to attend. She drew the ire of Penry, a former McInnis staffer who dropped out of the governor’s race and now backs his old boss.

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