Gas company aims drills at West Slope wildlife area
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
NEW CASTLE, Colorado ” Kyle Holt was driving on County Road 312 through the Garfield Creek State Wildlife Area when he saw pink flags and some men out in the refuge. He saw a neighbor and asked what the men were doing. The answer disappointed him.
He was told that the wildlife area, where Holt said he’s seen 200 elk in a field where the flags were located, is now a part of the natural gas energy boom.
“It just doesn’t seem quite right,” he said, upset that the area is closed to residents but open to natural gas development. “Are our state wildlife areas up for grabs now as far as any kind of development goes? It seems like critical, fragile habitat up there.”
The Colorado Division of Wildlife and Denver-based Orion Energy Partners on Thursday confirmed that the company is making preliminary preparations to drill in the middle of the Garfield Creek State Wildlife Area, a 13,179-acre refuge south of New Castle.
The Division of WIldlife issued a special use permit to the company for limited surveying work of the environment and wildlife for future gas drilling operations, said Dean Riggs, area wildlife manager for the agency’s Grand Junction office.
Two former state wildlife biologists were in the area on behalf of the energy company last week even though it closed for the winter to all but elk and deer.
“They have asked for and received a special use permit to do some very limited work in there right now,” Riggs said.
Based on conversations with the gas company, Riggs said he expects more people will be sent to the wildlife area, maybe in May, for work that may include examining the nesting habits of raptors.
The wildlife agency owns the land, but cannot prevent drilling in the wildlife area because it does not own the mineral rights beneath the habitat’s surface.
“The challenge is that mineral owners have a right to extract those minerals. We are the surface owner, we really can’t do anything,” said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the agency
Doug Harris, vice president of operations for Orion Energy Partners, said the company is developing “best management practices” with the Division of Wildlife and the Colorado Wildlife Commission about its possible plan to drill in the area.
“We want to go in with everyone’s eyes wide open so that all of us understand the various issues,” Harris said. “We want participation from the DOW and any other stakeholder or local interest group. We want to make sure everyone understands what we are doing, why we are doing it, and that it is done with the best practices in mind. We would not have to go through that process if we just wanted to go in there and drill.”
Oil and gas companies, if they own the mineral rights or lease them, most often try to reach agreements with surface owners for oil and gas extraction on their property. But if a deal can’t be reached, oil and gas companies can still place well pads and drilling rigs over the surface owner’s objections.
“Realistically, because of the mineral ownership they can force us into doing something,” Riggs said. “I guess we are taking the thought process that OK, maybe it’s in our best interest to try and work this through with them and see what we can do. If that requires us to make a couple of exceptions there, again, we are probably in a better spot to do that rather than just dig our heels in and say no.”