The federal government has withdrawn three oil and gas leases in areas of prime grizzly bear habitat on the Shoshone National Forest in response to a lawsuit filed by conservationists.
"The government withdrew the leases in an effort to avoid a court ruling on the legality of its oil and gas leasing program," said Tim Preso, an attorney for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund who represented conservationists in the case.
The disputed leases would have conveyed oil and gas development rights to 1,776 acres in the Brent Creek/Ramshorn Pass area northwest of Dubois, Wyoming, and to 1,760 acres that lie along Gooseberry Creek further to the northeast near Meteetse, Wyoming. The lands involved provide important year-round habitat for grizzly bears, including crucial low-elevation spring habitat near Brent Creek where bears find winter-killed elk and lush vegetation while higher elevations remain blanketed in snow. Between 1988 and 1996, at least 18 grizzly bears used the Brent Creek area. The lease areas also are home to moose, goshawks, wolves and lynx, and the Brent Creek area is an important elk calving ground.
Acting on behalf of eight conservation groups, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund filed a federal court lawsuit against the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in April, challenging the government's attempt to issue these leases without analyzing and avoiding impacts on grizzly bears as required by the Endangered Species Act. The BLM withdrew the leases in a decision announced in a court filing submitted by the government last Friday.
"The BLM's withdrawal of the leases is a victory for grizzly bears, and also for elk hunters, wolf enthusiasts, birdwatchers, hikers, backpackers and everyone else who enjoys the magnificent country where the Forest Service and BLM were planning oil and gas development," said Dan Heilig, Executive Director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
"The Brent Creek area is one of the best places in Greater Yellowstone for wildlife, and one of the worst places to build more roads, pipeline and other industrial facilities," added Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "This is an area that should be managed for wildlife and recreation, not industrial development."
Activities such as pipeline, road, and well-pad construction destroy grizzly habitat, create air and water pollution and forever compromise the wild character of the landscape. The cumulative effects of road building and industrialization of the landscape can be devastating to big game, fisheries, and recreational opportunities.
"The government's obligation to make sure that oil and gas development does not occur to the detriment of grizzly bears was clear in the law, but it wasn't until citizens went to court that the Forest Service and BLM finally decided to do the right thing and withdraw these leases," said Louisa Willcox, Project Coordinator for the Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project. "It shouldn't take a federal lawsuit to make these agencies honor their duty to the grizzly bear."
"This decision means that the government will not issue these leases at this time," Preso added, "but that does not mean that the threat of oil and gas development in the Yellowstone ecosystem is gone. The public needs to tell the Forest Service and the BLM that they should be protecting the natural values of the Yellowstone area, not planning to turn it over to oil and gas interests."
The Shoshone is not the only national forest in the Greater Yellowstone area facing threats from oil and gas development. The nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest is analyzing whether to permit oil and gas operations across 370,000 acres of public land, including areas of sensitive wildlife habitat and lands adjoining popular wilderness areas. The Forest Service is expected to issue a draft environmental impact statement concerning Bridger-Teton oil and gas development before the end of the year.