Drilling to Begin in Colorado Ferret Habitat

The Federal government recently auctioned off thousands of acres of new leases for oil and gas drilling in northwest Colorado. The area is considered crucial habitat for the endangered black-footed ferret. State and federal wildlife officials consider the ferrets to be one of North America's most endangered mammals. From Aspen Public Radio, Kirk Siegler reports.

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Here's a case where people are being asked to choose between energy and the environment. It involves one of North America's most endangered animals, the black-footed ferret. It is being reintroduced in four states. But a Bush administration mandate to fast track energy development across the West has energy companies eager to drill in its habitat.

Kirk SIEGLER reports from Aspen Public Radio.

Mr. KIRK SIEGLER (Reporter, Aspen Public Radio): Nobody has ever had it in for the black-footed ferret. It's its main food source, the prairie dog, that's the problem. The dogs have long been considered a pest by ranchers, and since the '40s, many states encouraged their eradication. Bad news for the ferret, which was nearly wiped out.

Here in northwest Colorado, wind whips through sagebrush in this hot and dusty landscape, home to one of the ferret reintroduction sites.

Mr. BOB LEACHMAN (Retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist): Yeah, this time of year wind is pretty common. When you're standing out here and looking at this country, it doesn't look very hospitable for anything. But really, there's abundant wildlife out here all throughout the year.

Mr. SIEGLER: Retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bob Leachman led efforts to reintroduce the black-footed ferret to Colorado in 2001. This remote site was chosen because it's full of prairie dogs. Indeed the dogs are everywhere, but there are no ferrets in sight. Leachman says the black-footed ferret almost never makes public appearances, and when it does, it's only for seconds at a time in the middle of the night.

Mr. LEACHMAN: If we lose the ferret from here, we lose an important part of our natural ecosystem. It has just as much right to be on this land as all the other mammals.

Mr. SIEGLER: Today, however, there are potentially new threats for the ferrets, especially in Colorado where oil and gas development is booming. Federal land managers recently auctioned off thousands of acres of new leases for drilling in an area considered crucial ferret habitat. Those leases do have provisions attached to them, aimed at mitigating the impacts drilling may have on the endangered ferret. David Boyd is a spokesman for BLM in Northwest Colorado.

Mr. DAVID BOYD (Spokesman, for BLM, Northwest Colorado): The companies that we've been working with in northwestern Colorado are acutely aware of the importance of wildlife to the people of Colorado and have been fairly cooperative, in that sense.

Mr. SIEGLER: Boyd adds, those companies still need to pass what he says will be a thorough environmental review process, conducted by his agency.

Mr. BOYD: We're a full partner, and have been a full partner, in this ferret reintroduction, and we are committing to see it succeed.

Mr. SIEGLER: The ferret was reintroduced as an experimental population under a rule in the Endangered Species Act. Biologist Rick Krueger, currently leads the Ferret Recovery Program for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Krueger says that, under that rule, the reintroduction plan states that the ferrets must co-exist with possible energy development. Still, he has his doubts.

Mr. RICK KRUEGER (Biologist): Well, I'm not sure I'm confident that can happen. I'm I guess hopeful that there will be room for both.

Mr. SIEGLER: Back at the reintroduction site, Bob Leachman says the black-footed ferret's survival depends on how intense the drilling is, and he believes there's every indication given the current boom, that big trucks, drill rigs and roads will soon dot stop this landscape.

Mr. LEACHMAN: It's going to be very disappointing if this administration emphasizes a need for the energy here but turns its head to the importance of one of the rarest mammals in North America.

Mr. SIEGLER: Conservationists have filed protests against the new leases for drilling, but both side doubts those will hold up, given the current political climate surrounding energy development. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler, in Aspen.

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