Seeking to safeguard an area of key wildlife habitat near Yellowstone National Park, Earthjustice lawyers served notice on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups that they will ask a federal judge to review oil and gas leasing decisions by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
One of the leased areas, located in northwest Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest and home to at least 18 grizzly bears, could see oil and gas exploration activities as early as this summer.
"Issuing these oil and gas leases is the first step in a process that could transform a critical wildlife area just outside Yellowstone National Park into an industrial zone," said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who is representing the conservationists. "If oil and gas development comes to this area, grizzly bears and other wildlife will be driven away or killed. The Yellowstone region is among our nation's environmental treasures. It should not become an oil field."
The notice letter 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. The Forest Service presently is evaluating an oil company's application to drill on one of the challenged leases in the Brent Creek area. Federal officials have promised an environmental analysis of the proposed well -- known as the Scott Well #2 -- this spring, and drilling could commence this summer.
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. This area also provides key habitat for three other species protected by the Endangered Species Act -- gray wolves, lynx, and northern goshawks. Perhaps most significantly, it contains low-elevation habitat where bears, after emerging from winter dens, can feed on winter-killed elk and lush vegetation, when high elevations are still covered in snow. Between 1988 and 1996, 18 radio-collared grizzly bears (and undoubtedly numerous unmarked bears) used the Brent Creek area. Nevertheless, the Forest Service and BLM have opened the area to oil and gas leasing.
"The Scott Well #2 proposal is bad news for grizzly bears, but it is also bad news for elk hunters, wolf enthusiasts, birdwatchers, hikers, backpackers and everyone else who enjoys the magnificent country where the Forest Service wants to plant an oil rig," said Kelly Matheson of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "We intend to make sure that the Forest Service complies with the law before any drilling can be done."
"The Scott Well #2 is a prime example of why we are filing this notice," added Tim Stevens of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "The Forest Service and BLM should know the effects drilling will have on the grizzly bear and other sensitive wildlife before it sells off the rights to develop those lands. Instead, these agencies have put off their analysis until after they have issued leases and now they are planning a drilling project in the area."
Today's notice letter specifies violations of the Endangered Species Act by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in issuing oil and gas leases in occupied grizzly bear habitat without taking legally required steps to analyze and avoid the adverse impacts of oil and gas drilling on the threatened bears. It represents the latest initiative in an ongoing effort by conservation groups to insure that wildlife impacts are adequately considered by federal agencies promoting oil and gas development near Yellowstone National Park. The groups signing on to today's letter filed suit last April against the proposed issuance of three oil and gas leases in grizzly bear habitat areas within the Shoshone National Forest. In response, the BLM withdrew the leases, thereby avoiding a court decision on the legality of their oil and gas leasing program. However, numerous oil and gas leases remain in critical wildlife habitat in and near the Shoshone National Forest.
"Brent Creek is perhaps the best grizzly habitat remaining outside of Yellowstone National Park," said John Spahr of the Sierra Club. "If we want a recovered grizzly bear population, we have to protect the grizzly's habitat. That means keeping it wild, not opening it up to the oil and gas industry."
"Oil and gas development is just not appropriate in this sensitive wildlife area," added Dubois Wildlife Association President Tory Taylor. "Our members who hunt and recreate on these public lands wish to protect the elk migration corridor and calving grounds located in the Brent Creek and Dunoir drainages. There is not a Middle East oil field beneath this land -- we are talking about a small amount of low grade crude at best. This area will not in any way help America's energy needs. We want our elk."
Brent Creek is only one of many areas throughout the Northern Rockies facing threats from a renewed rush to develop potential oil and gas reserves. The nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest recently issued a draft decision to prohibit oil and gas leasing across 370,000 acres of public land, including areas of sensitive wildlife habitat and lands adjoining popular wilderness areas near Jackson Hole. However, the fate of those lands remains uncertain, as the Bush Administration has promised to open new areas to oil exploration and could change the draft recommendation when a final decision is released.
The coalition serving notice today includes: Wyoming Outdoor Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Dubois Wildlife Association, American Wildlands, Native Forest Network.