The rush to drill for oil and natural gas in five Rocky Mountain states is threatening endangered species and is locking out hunters and fisherman from western lands, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and National Wildlife Federation (NWF) said in a report Wednesday. Their report further claimed that the amount of natural gas produced from the region has been "modest," and not enough to justify "runaway drilling."

Drilling in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming has nearly doubled over the past decade, rising to 2,053 wells drilled per year between 2001 and 2006 from 1,036 wells drilled per year between 1993 and 2000, the two groups noted.

"Runaway drilling has transformed many of our public lands from an important part of our western heritage to industrial zones where wildlife and hunters are pushed out," said Dusty Horwitt, public lands analyst for EWG, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, DC.

The federal government currently has leased almost 27 million acres of habitat for four key game species (antelope, elk, mule deer and sage grouse) for oil and natural gas drilling, EWG and NWF said. Wyoming saw the greatest increase in drilling on game habitat for the four species, with 884 wells drilled per year between 2001 and 2006, compared to 434 per year between 1993 and 2000, they noted. Overall Wyoming has the most oil and gas wells on game habitat, with 34,808 wells drilled.

"In some areas, such as Wyoming's Pinedale Anticline, the increase in drilling has turned western landscapes into industrial zones virtually overnight. In other areas, such as New Mexico's Carson National Forest near Navajo Lake, the recent spike in drilling has intensified impacts on areas already pockmarked with wells," the report said.

Many of the wells are being drilled in winter habitat that is critical to the survival of the species, according to the report. In Colorado, for example, 139 wells were drilled per year on winter concentration areas between 2001 and 2006, compared to only 77 per year between 1993 and 2000. In Utah, there were 335 wells drilled per year on crucial winter habitat between 2001 and 2006, up from 165 between 1993 and 2000, the report said. It noted that drilling in crucial winter areas in Wyoming also remained high, with 168 wells drilled per year between 2001 and 2006 compared to 162 between 1993 and 2000.

"The dramatic increase in drilling in game habitat was justified under the banner of energy independence. Yet drilling on these lands has produced a modest amount of energy, about 7% of U.S. natural gas consumption over a 15-year period (1991-2005)," the report said. "Crucial winter habitats produced smaller amounts of energy: 1% of U.S. consumption in crucial winter habitat in Wyoming over the 15-year period and less than one half of 1% on crucial winter habitats in Colorado and Utah over the same time period," it noted.

Energy efficiency and renewable energy "can reduce the needless sacrifice of public lands," the report said. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy has estimated that by 2020 the U.S. could save about the same amount of energy per year produced from the game habitats analyzed by EWG by implementing efficiency standards for several appliances not yet covered by federal rules, it noted.

"In addition, the West's growing emphasis on alternative energy from wind, solar and biomass can provide far more energy than can ever be extracted from beneath the migration corridors, fawning grounds and winter habitat [that] wildlife needs to survive," the report said.

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