Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund today filed a federal court lawsuit challenging three oil and gas leases on the Shoshone National Forest in an area that provides important year-round grizzly bear habitat. The Forest Service has failed to analyze and avoid the adverse impacts of these three oil and gas leases on bears. Instead, the Forest Service and other federal agencies have turned a blind eye to potential drilling and full field development because the area is outside of the grizzly bear recovery zone. The recovery zone boundary was arbitrarily drawn shortly after the bear was added to the Endangered Species List in 1975, and the agencies have refused to protect the bears where they live.
“The federal government has issued these leases in some of the best grizzly bear habitat in the Rockies without stopping to take a look at how these leases will harm bears and other wildlife,” declared Doug Honnold, an Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund attorney handling the case. “Before the feds sign on the dotted line, we want to make sure habitat protections are in place.”
A pair of objectionable oil and gas leases total 1,776 acres at the southern end of the Absaroka Mountains in the Brent Creek/Ramshorn Pass area northwest of Dubois, Wyoming, while a third consists of 1,760 acres that lies along Grass Creek further to the northeast. While outside of the designated grizzly recovery zone, Brent Creek 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.
“The Forest Service has adopted a ‘lease now, examine later’ policy,” said Dan Heilig, Executive Director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “It’s a big mistake to give the right to drill to an oil company and then claim that it will be fixed later when an Application for Permit to Drill is submitted. Nobody in their right mind would sign away the right to their home and then say ‘we’ll work out the details later.'”
Activities like pipeline, road, and well-pad construction destroy grizzly habitat, create air and water pollution and forever compromise the wild character of the landscape. During oil and gas exploration there are low-altitude reconnaissance flights by airplane or helicopter, and seismic blasting that generates shock waves through the ground. Seismic exploration and mining are known to cause grizzly bears to abandon their dens; and the cumulative effects of roading, and industrialization of the landscape can be devastating to big game, fisheries, as well as recreational opportunities.
“You couldn’t pick a worse place in the Yellowstone area for grizzly recovery to put major oil and gas development,” stated Louisa Willcox, Project Coordinator for the Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project. “If this is what the feds have in mind for grizzly bears while they’re protected under the Endangered Species Act, we can kiss their habitat good bye under a delisting scenario.”
Tory Taylor, President of the Dubois Wildlife Association, remarked: “The Ramshorn and Brent Creek area of the Shoshone Forest is God’s country. This is a place where elk, grizzly bear recovery, and hunting opportunities should reign supreme.”
In the Yellowstone ecosystem, the Shoshone, Bridger-Teton, Targhee, Custer, and Beaverhead National Forests are in various stages of completing analyses on oil and gas development. More than 5 million acres on these 5 forests could be opened to leasing and development for oil and gas. This is an area two times larger than Yellowstone National Park, which in itself is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.