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Judge allows challenge to Wyoming drilling plan to continue

By Sarah Pizzohttp://www.ourpubliclands.org/judge-allows-challenge-wyoming-drilling-plan-continue | 1.16.13  
CHEYENNE, Wyo. – The National Wildlife Federation and the Wyoming Wildlife Federation are moving forward with their challenge to plans to drill important southern Wyoming wildlife habitat after a judge ruled that the organizations have a stake in the dispute and can press their case.

Chief Administrative Judge H. Barry Holt of the Interior Board of Land Appeals has denied the Bureau of Land Management’s request to dismiss the groups’ case.  The administrative law judge rejected the BLM’s argument that WWF and NWF couldn’t show that their interests would be harmed by the Atlantic Rim Natural Gas Development Project.

In his ruling this week, Holt said that “recreational or other use of the lands and/or resources that would be affected by the action adopted by BLM has long been recognized as a legally cognizable interest that, being substantially likely to be injured, is sufficient to support a claim of standing.”

NWF attorney Michael Saul was pleased with the ruling, saying it set an important precedent.

“The Interior Board of Land Appeals’ ruling confirms, beyond a doubt, that hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing are legitimate and protected recreational interests, and that when drilling on public lands threatens those interests, members of the public have a right to demand review,’’ Saul added. ``The board correctly recognized that the legitimate injury NWF and WWF members face is the potential loss of mule deer and pronghorn habitat, and this threat of injury entitles them to hold the BLM to the requirements of the law.”

Going forward, the judge will decide the underlying substantive question of whether the BLM properly approved the development of 51 new wells and the construction of roads, pipelines, well pads, and other associated infrastructure in the wildlife-rich Atlantic Rim area of south-central Wyoming.

The Atlantic Rim area, part of Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin, provides vital seasonal habitat for large herds of pronghorn antelope and mule deer, and is also home to several imperiled species, including greater sage-grouse and Colorado River cutthroat trout. The area is a popular destination for hunters, bird-watchers and other outdoorsmen and women.

In 2007, BLM approved the Atlantic Rim Natural Gas Field Development Project, opening a quarter-million acres to natural gas development. In response to the concerns of NWF, WWF and other conservation groups, the BLM developed an “adaptive management program” to prevent and mitigate impacts on wildlife. Under the plan, BLM and the operators pledged to study the ways natural gas development impacts wildlife and to adapt future development plans to protect wildlife.

 “However, BLM has failed to implement many elements of its own adaptive management program,’’ NWF attorney Sarah Pizzo said. ``The agency knows that existing natural gas development is having negative impacts on the Atlantic Rim’s wildlife, yet it has done little to regulate development in such a way that protects wildlife and habitat and instead continues to approve massive drilling projects in the area.”

Before the BLM approved the most recent drilling proposal, NWF and WWF asked the agency to conduct a more comprehensive analysis of the project’s impacts on wildlife habitat. When BLM denied that request, the organizations took the matter to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which oversees challenges to decision and actions of the agencies within the Department of Interior, including the BLM.

ContactJudith Kohler, National Wildlife Federation, 303-441-5163, office, 720-315-0855, mobile; kohlerj@nwf.org


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