Associated Press
A federal government plan for drilling in energy-rich northwestern Colorado released Friday includes stepped-up protections for public land near Dinosaur National Monument.

DENVER — A federal government plan for drilling in energy-rich northwestern Colorado released Friday includes stepped-up protections for public land near Dinosaur National Monument.

The proposal would also ease limits on what time of year drilling rigs can operate if energy companies consolidate well sites to minimize environmental disruptions.

Seasonal restrictions on drilling are designed to protect wildlife during winter, nesting times and other periods when they're more vulnerable.

The plan covers nearly 2,700 square miles of federal land in Rio Blanco County and parts of Moffat and Garfield counties. It's in the Bureau of Land Management's White River district.

The BLM says the area could yield more than 7.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to heat 7.5 million homes for 15 years. The agency reviewed potential impacts that might occur if more than 15,000 wells were drilled on 1,100 sites over 20 years.

About 560 square miles would be subject to additional restrictions to protect Dinosaur National Monument as well as wildlife — including the greater sage grouse, which is being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The restrictions include measures to keep the night sky dark and limit noise and visual intrusions.

The 330-square-mile national monument, which straddles the Colorado-Utah border, includes dinosaur fossils, petroglyphs and the canyons of the Green and Yampa rivers. Rafting is popular in the area.

The Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, expressed concern about how much surface area might be closed to drilling under the overall plan, requiring companies to use directional drilling to tap gas pockets from a distance.

Directional drilling doesn't work in every situation, said Kathleen Sgamma, a spokeswoman for the group.

"This is another example of putting more lands off-limits and making it more difficult to operate on public lands," she said.

Conservation and recreation groups praised the plan, particularly protections for the Dinosaur Monument area.

Ellis Richard, a retired National Park Service ranger and founder of Park Rangers for Our Lands, said the plan could pre-empt conflicts between energy development and conservation.

The release of the plan triggers a 30-day period for public protests and a 60-day period for state officials to review it. A final decision is expected this year.

Online:

BLM drilling proposal: http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/BLM_Programs/land_use_planning/rmp/white_river/Proposed_RMPA_FEIS.html

Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP