Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leasing policies should do more to protect wildlife habitat, say representatives of sporting groups concerned about conservation.

More than 25 million acres throughout the West have been leased for energy development since 1996, said Bill Burbridge with the Mule Deer Foundation. About 3.9 million acres of that land is in Utah.

"There's a real concern about the pace and lack of planning that's going on," Burbridge said. He and representatives from Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership met Tuesday with the Deseret Morning News editorial board.

They said their groups support oil and gas development, but it must be planned carefully and done without undue hardship for wildlife.

Under pressure from the Bush administration, the BLM has been increasing the number of oil and gas leases it issues for BLM land, as well as for the Forest Service mineral estate that the BLM manages, they said.

Late last month, the BLM state office for Utah announced that it was canceling its quarterly competitive oil and gas lease sale that had been planned for Nov. 13. Terry Catlin, leasing team lead for the Utah BLM, said in a news release that the cancellation was "based on concerns over the adequacy of existing environmental compliance in light of availability of new wildlife habitat information."

The state office is conducting a new National Environmental Policy Act analysis to address "new information relevant to oil and gas leasing decisions," she added.

The sale cancellation apparently was a first for the Utah BLM. "We're not aware that one has been canceled in the past due to wildlife habitat concerns," said Sherry Foot, a BLM spokeswoman in Salt Lake City.

Oil and gas companies had nominated 86 parcels for the sale — a total of 141,717 acres — in the field offices administered from Salt Lake City, Price and Richfield. However, usually a third to a half of the nominated parcels drop out before the final offerings, said Foot.

Two of the parcels were determined to be available for leasing, Catlin said. They are to be offered for the Feb. 19, 2008, quarterly lease sale.

Foot said that among the 84 under scrutiny, some may be cleared for the February sale.

Impacts from leasing might damage Strawberry Reservoir, said Paul Dremann and Ted Fitzgerald, members of Trout Unlimited. A total of 84 leases have been issued in the watershed, which Trout Unlimited members fear could cause problems for the watershed system.

Meanwhile, Joel Webster, with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, fears "wildlife's going to take it on the nose" if petroleum fields are developed in places like Utah's Book Cliffs. A well could be spaced in a 20-acre tract, near another in its 20-acre tract, and so on, with roads carved throughout the region to service them.

Foot said she isn't familiar with spacing rules. But a reason the November sale is being postponed is "we do want to make sure we have the adequate documentation on wildlife habitat to be able to offer the parcels.... State Division of Wildlife Resources has given us some new information on wildlife critical summer range, and that is also a piece of it."

BLM is "trying to do a responsible job of resource management," she said.

New roads could break up large-animal migration routes and drive deer to other areas where concentrations may become too high, according to the wildlife advocates. A main concern about dirt roads carved through land above watersheds is that silt and other runoff could wash into the streams and rivers, damaging fish habitat.

Burbridge said the state of Utah has embarked on a laudable program to restore wildlife habitat. He does not want to see the effort go to waste because of too much oil and gas development.

In Montana, gas developments badly damaged mule-deer habitat and drove the animals away from some of their range, causing a high population density in adjacent, he said.

"There's real concern that similar things are going to happen in this state."

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