Colorado regulators have asked the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to remove some parcels in the northwestern part of the state from an upcoming oil and gas lease sale and to consider enacting a one-well pad/square mile limit within big game habitat, suggestions that the oil and gas industry opposes.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) of the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have sent letters to the BLM over the planned lease sale in March. They reiterated many of the concerns voiced by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper last September before a separate BLM lease sale held in December. BLM ultimately decided to withdraw nearly 150,000 acres in northwestern Colorado from the December sale.

At issue is winter habitat deemed critical to elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep, as well as the bald eagle, the greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken.

"Preserving healthy big game populations is important to Colorado for many reasons," DNR Executive Director Robert Randall wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to BLM. "Available scientific literature indicates the best way to protect these wildlife habitats and maintain their functionality is to limit the density of surface disturbance from oil and gas development.

"Recent research has called into question the effectiveness of timing limitation stipulations; therefore, additional density limitations are necessary, such as a stipulation of one well pad per square mile to maintain big game populations in areas heavily impacted by oil and gas. This recommendation continues to allow for multi-well pads and efficient development of fluid minerals on public lands in Colorado, while protecting crucial winter habitats and migration corridors."

Randall also cited Interior's Secretarial Order 3362, which calls for improving habitat quality in western big game migration corridors and working in "complete collaboration" with the states.

The U.S. Forest Service in October issued a draft environmental impact statement and amended land management plans covering sage grouse habitat in five western states. Randall said the DNR was appreciative of BLM deferring parcels in sage grouse habitat from the December sale and requested it do the same in March.

"We recognize that BLM will not routinely defer leasing when waiting for a plan amendment or revision to be signed, but it remains within the discretion of the state office to recommend deferral to the Washington office," Randall said.

In a separate letter sent in October to the BLM's field office in Grand Junction, CO, CPW’s J.T. Romatzke, northwest regional manager, also requested the sage grouse habitat be pulled from the March sale, and he called for the agency to consider a one pad/square mile limit within elk migration corridors and production areas. Romatzke also called for restricting activities within the winter range of bighorn sheep and near bald eagle roosting sites.

"Until an adequate mechanism is in place to provide these protections, CPW recommends deferral of these important habitats from this sale, and future lease sales," Romatzke wrote.

While the oil and gas industry said it was sympathetic to the concerns of Colorado's wildlife managers, it is urgingBLM to move forward with the lease sales as proposed.

"Colorado is just starting to address density in critical big game habitat and migration corridors, so the state is asking BLM to do something it hasn't even figured out yet," said Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma. "That's putting the cart in front of the horse. Just tossing out a hard-and-fast standard without the required deliberation and stakeholder input is not the way to set good government policy.

"BLM should certainly consider Colorado's policy once it's gone through the deliberative process that addresses actual conditions on BLM lands, but until then, BLM should proceed forward with the leases."

West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Eric Carlson told NGI's Shale Daily that enacting a one pad/square mile limit would be four times the setback distance outlined in Proposition 112, which Colorado voters rejected in November. The ballot initiative would have increased well site setbacks to 2,500 feet from 500 feet for residences and workplaces, as well as "vulnerable areas" such as playgrounds and public water sources.

"It would be a significant setback. It's probably pretty untenable," Carlson said Friday. But he also struck a conciliatory tone. "CPW has always been an agency we've worked well within the industry in the Piceance Basin. I don't see this comment being any more than raising the issue that there is critical winter habitat."

Carlson said the DNR and CPW have been working to reestablish a larger deer herd in the northwestern part of the state for several years and said hunting licenses are a big revenue stream. Similar concerns over big game in neighboring Wyoming led BLM to defer the sale of about 5,000 surface acres last August.

"It's no surprise that they want make sure that that habitat continues to be prime habitat and continues to get better over time," Carlson said. "We have always been willing to work with wildlife interests to make sure that what we're doing doesn't diminish that attitude."

According to BLM's website, plans are to auction 26 parcels totaling more than 14,051 acres in the March sale including acreage in Fremont, Garfield, Jackson, Mesa and Moffat counties.