Conservationists keep spotlight on environment in governor’s race

Heading into a midweek gubernatorial debate on energy, conservationists pushed to keep the environment in the spotlight by endorsing Democrat Bill Ritter and promoting a plan to protect wildlife they hope picks up some support.

Eighty-four former and retired Colorado Division of Wildlife employees, directors and commissioners released a letter Monday endorsing Ritter in his race with Republican Bob Beauprez for governor. They said Colorado is at a critical crossroads because of its growing population and energy development and believe Ritter has “a strong and balanced conservation ethic.”

“Bill Ritter met with a group of sportsmen in Grand Junction in August, and I got the very strong impression that he was concerned about environmental issues and that he would consider those environmental issues in his decision making process if he was elected governor,” said John Ellenberger, who retired in 2004 as the state’s big game manager.

Other conservationists and wildlife advocates have proposed 10 energy development guidelines to reduce or avoid impacts on wildlife and habitat. The nearly 30 groups, ranging from Colorado Bowhunters to The Wilderness Society, have sent the plan to Ritter, Beauprez, legislative candidates and public lands agencies, hoping it will be endorsed or considered as the state continues to see record natural gas drilling rates.

“We all love fish and wildlife and sportsmen are becoming more and more aware that if we don’t have good quality habitat, we’re not going to have good hunting and fishing,” said Dennis Buechler, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and wetlands ecologist.

Buechler said the gubernatorial debate on energy, sponsored by the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado Wednesday night at the high school in Rifle, is important because of all the gas drilling and the prospect of oil shale development in western Colorado. The area has some of the nation’s largest deer and elk herds and pristine waterways, a huge draw for hunters and anglers across the country.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife estimates that hunting and fishing generate about $2.3 billion a year in direct and indirect economic benefits.

Western Colorado, with its huge tracts of open, public land, is also treasured by hikers, wildlife watchers and recreationists. That’s led to alliances among environmentalists and hunters who in the past have been at odds.

“It makes sense for people with similar values to work together. My guess is that you’ll see more allies, as time goes on, that may seem unexpected,” said Lee-Ann Hill, a Western Slope field organizer for the Colorado Mountain Club.

Both Ritter and Beauprez have responded to environmental concerns with position papers on energy development, renewable energy, wildlife and initiatives targeted toward hunters and anglers.

In August, Beauprez released a plan to offset the impacts of gas development on Colorado’s wildlife. He has proposed using some revenue from mineral severance taxes and pursuing private and federal funds to improve and create habitat elsewhere to make up for land disturbed by energy operations.

“Political leadership needs to be shown on the issue to be sure that we protect and preserve the long-term value of northwest Colorado, including wildlife habitat and wildlife,” said John Marshall, Beauprez’s spokesman.

The plan, though, has been rejected by some wildlife biologists and former public lands managers who say land is difficult to restore and wildlife, whose migration routes and breeding spots are established over many years, won’t easily change their habits.

Ellenberger, the former state big game manager, called Beauprez’s initiative “a slap in the face of anyone who understands wildlife.”

“It’s the build-it-and-they-will-come sort of attitude,” Ellenberger said of the proposal to enhance habitat somewhere else.

Buechler, the retired federal biologist, said the first step should be to avoid drilling in important wildlife habitat and then reduce the impact. The energy development guidelines written by conservation groups include maximizing the distance between well pads and completing all the work planned rather than allowing companies to drill some wells and return later to drill more.

Although Buechler joined two other biologists to critique Beauprez’ proposal, he said he’s pleased the candidate is thinking about the issue.

“The devil’s in the details,” he said.

Click here for the original Associated Press article.

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