Northwestern Colorado's natural gas producers in Garfield County could be facing additional regulations for drilling operations due to a wildlife issue that is bigger than mule deer or sage grouse and potentially life-threatening to workers.

Energy company "man camps" are receiving visits from back country black bears that normally forage for food in the wild. The Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) said these bears are not accustomed to human food but are wild bears affected by the ongoing drought in the Rocky Mountains. Many of the bears' natural sources of food are drying up, and they are attracted to the food and trash that is present at these facilities.

Energy workers have been phoning DOW asking the agency to remove the bears, but the agency is strongly suggesting that energy companies clean up their operations and make trash, food and greasy barbecues inaccessible to wildlife The situation has become so critical that DOW issued a press release last month noting that "bears are finding new sources of human food among the thousands of energy industry employees who work, and, in some cases, live in prime black bear habitat."

DOW spokesman Randy Hampton told NGI that the wildlife agency has been working with energy companies like EnCana Corp. and Williams Cos. to make their facilities more "bear proof," but overall progress has been slow.

Since the issuance of the press release, said Hampton, "the response [from the energy industry] has been rapid. They claimed that the press release overly generalized the situation and made workers look bad, but we had to get the message out quickly."

In the next two months, as bears try to fatten up for the winter, "we'll deal with significant bear issues, and we want to educate before someone gets hurt," said Hampton. Hungry bears that become accustomed to obtaining food from human sources can become more aggressive in their efforts.

Hampton told NGI that Garfield County does not have an ordinance requiring bear proof facilities at man camps or drilling locations, but neighboring Rio Blanco does. Major natural gas operators in the Piceance Basin are cooperating but "there are hundreds of small operators that we don't know about," he said.

EnCana spokesperson Doug Hock told NGI that the company has been working with DOW since early July on bear-proofing its facilities and educating its workers on how to be bear aware.

"As a company we don't advocate the removal of bears," said Hock. "We're in their territory."

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