Wildlife chief says state must be on front lines of crucial battles

DENVER (AP) — Energy development and endangered species are generating some of the most bruising battles in the West, and the state’s top wildlife official said his agency needs to be on the front lines.

A new conservation section created by shifting staffers and positions is gathering data and building the science needed to see if any animals or fish are in danger, Bruce McCloskey, director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“We really tried to sit back and say, ‘How do we get ahead of this so we’re not always playing defense,”’ McCloskey said this week.

The goal is to catch problems, protect habitat and shore up a species before the federal government steps in with an “endangered” or “threatened” listing, which can trigger land-use restrictions.

“They’re just coming at us left and right. As soon as we get one species addressed, there comes another one,” said McCloskey, who took over as director nearly two years ago after 30 years with the agency.

To get a jump on problems, the division in 2000 opened a fish hatchery devoted entirely to breeding native species. After a nearly 30-year absence, lynx are again roaming the state since the DOW began releasing more than 200 of the longhaired mountain cats from Canada in the wilds of southwestern Colorado in 1999.

McCloskey acknowledged that key to keeping species healthy once restoration programs are started is the preserving habitat. Much of that land is in the bull’s-eye of the energy boom rocking Colorado and surrounding states.

“It’s huge,” McCloskey said of the widespread natural gas drilling.

Western Colorado has some of the region’s richest gas reserves. It also has the nation’s largest elk herd, big deer herds, premier fishing waters and some of the region’s most endangered fish.

McCloskey said that’s why DOW has hired Kim Kaal, a former energy company geologist, to be a liaison to the industry. She understands the industry’s needs and capabilities and will be able to represent the division’s interests to the energy companies, McCloskey said.

“The industry folks I’ve spoken to are very receptive. They’re saying ‘Tell us what the impacts are and tell us how we can minimize those,”’ McCloskey said.

They’re also interested in taking part in studies to monitor the impacts of development on wildlife, he said.

Studies funded in part by industry have shown negative effects from drilling on wildlife in western Wyoming, including declining use of leks, or courting grounds for sage grouse.

McCloskey said he would want DOW biologists, not consultants, in charge of the research in Colorado.

“We are the voice of wildlife. They can’t speak for themselves,” McCloskey said.

Wildlife advocates have praised Kaal’s hiring and given the division high marks for lynx restoration.

“They did in fact get ahead of the curve in terms of really expediting the recovery of this particular, very secretive carnivore (lynx),” said Rob Edward of the Boulder-based group Sinapu, which advocates protecting carnivores.

But Edward said the agency’s record on preserving habitat is mixed.

Jacob Smith, executive director of the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems, questioned why DOW hasn’t been more vocal about a large development planned at the base of the Wolf Creek ski area in southwestern Colorado, an important migration corridor for lynx.

Last week, the U.S. Forest Service approved construction of two roads across national forest land to private land to connect the ski village to a highway. Opponents are expected to appeal the decision.

“They can be advocates for habitat protection,” Smith said of the division. “They can pressure the Forest Service to step up and do its job.”

Environmentalists and wildlife advocates also want to hear more from the DOW on the fate of 4.4 million acres of national forest land closed to new roads and development under the Clinton administration but opened under the Bush administration. The division gave a state task force studying the issue a report in which wildlife biologists and officers say the land should be managed to protect wildlife and its habitat.

Dennis Buechler of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, which includes hunters and wildlife advocates, said he has been frustrated that the DOW hasn’t taken an official stance on the roadless areas.

“At some point in the process, I would really like to see the head office support their field people,” Buechler said.

He said it would also help if the division was more specific about the potential impacts of energy development and which areas should be left alone.

McCloskey said he hasn’t ruled out a DOW recommendation on roadless forests but believes it’s even more important to allow the biologists to weigh in, as they have.

“We’re the experts and we should continue to be the experts. We need to provide that data and that data needs to unedited by guys like me. It needs to come from on-the-ground folks,” McCloskey said.

Bob Elderkin of the Colorado Mule Deer Association, who advocates more monitoring of the effects of energy development, said he’s not sure how much impact the DOW can have on drilling. Much of the activity is on federal land and overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“The division is in charge of managing a resource, but not really given the voice and authority to be an advocate for it,” Elderkin said.

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