A coalition of conservation groups (see header) today filed a lawsuit challenging Forest Service and BLM leases of prime wildlife habitat near Yellowstone National Park for oil development. The leases would allow roadbuilding and oil drilling in an area of public lands in northwest Wyoming that scientists have shown to provide crucial habitat for the grizzly bear and many other sensitive species.
"The area threatened by these leases is a place where you can hunt elk, watch grizzly bears, and hear wolves howling – all in the same day," said Dan Heilig of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "We need to protect this national treasure for future generations of Americans."
"The Yellowstone area's importance to wildlife is unparalleled in the lower-48 states," added Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who is representing the coalition. "It should not be turned into an industrial zone."
The lawsuit focuses on six leases encompassing 2,080 acres of public lands, including four leases in the BLM's Lander Resource Area and two leases in the Shoshone National Forest. All of the leases are located at the southern end of the Absaroka Mountains in the Brent Creek/Ramshorn Pass area northwest of Dubois, Wyoming.
"You'll never see a grizzly bear in an oil field," said Liz Howell of the Sierra Club. "If oil development comes to grizzly country, the bears will lose, and Yellowstone will lose something special."
The legal challenge specifies violations of the Endangered Species Act by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The agencies issued oil and gas leases in occupied grizzly bear habitat without taking steps required by law to analyze and avoid the adverse impacts of oil and gas drilling on the threatened bears. The Brent Creek area has been identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an important wildlife travel corridor, year-round habitat for grizzlies, and an elk calving ground. Perhaps most significantly, it contains low-elevation habitat where bears, after emerging from winter dens, can find food in the spring when high elevations are still covered in snow. A federal study found that 18 radio-collared grizzly bears used the Brent Creek area.
The lawsuit, which has been filed in Washington, D.C., federal district court, could set a precedent that would fix a major loophole in current federal oil and gas leasing policies. "The Forest Service and BLM have put off their analysis of the impacts on imperiled species until after they sign away lease rights to the public lands," said Tim Stevens of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "We want to make sure they look before they leap – not after."