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Federal Wildlife Monitors Oversee a Boom in Drilling

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

PINEDALE, Wyo. -- The Bureau of Land Management, caretaker of more land and wildlife than any federal agency, routinely restricts the ability of its own biologists to monitor wildlife damage caused by surging energy drilling on federal land, according to BLM officials and bureau documents.

The officials and documents say that by keeping many wildlife biologists out of the field doing paperwork on new drilling permits and that by diverting agency money intended for wildlife conservation to energy programs, the BLM has compromised its ability to deal with the environmental consequences of the drilling boom it is encouraging on public lands.

Here on the high sage plains of western Wyoming, often called the Serengeti of the West because of large migratory herds of deer and antelope, the Pinedale region has become one of the most productive and profitable natural gas fields on federal land in the Rockies. With the aggressive backing of the Bush administration, many members of Congress and the energy industry, at least a sixfold expansion in drilling is likely here in the coming decade.

Recent studies of mule deer and sage grouse, however, show steep declines in their numbers since the gas boom began here about five years ago: a 46 percent decline for mule deer and a 51 percent decline for breeding male sage grouse. Early results from a study of pronghorn antelope show that they, too, avoid the gas fields.

Yet as these findings have come in, the wildlife biologists in the Pinedale office of the BLM have rarely gone into the field to monitor harm to wildlife.

"The BLM is pushing the biologists to be what I call 'biostitutes,' rather than allow them to be experts in the wildlife they are supposed to be managing," said Steve Belinda, 37, who last week quit his job as one of three wildlife biologists in the BLM's Pinedale office because he said he was required to spend nearly all his time working on drilling requests. "They are telling us that if it is not energy-related, you are not working on it."

Belinda, who had worked for 16 years as a wildlife biologist for the BLM and the Forest Service, said he came to work in the agency's Pinedale office 20 months ago because of the "world-class wildlife." He has quit to work here for a national conservation group, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, as its energy initiative manager.

"It is a huge attraction for biologists to work in western Wyoming," he said. "But in this [BLM] office, they want you to look at things in a single-minded way. I have spent less than 1 percent of my time in the field. If we continue down this trend of keeping biologists in the office and preventing them from doing substantive work, there is a train wreck coming for wildlife."

Belinda is not alone in his view that the BLM, in its focused pursuit of increased drilling, is neglecting its congressional mandate to manage federal lands for "multiple use."

For years the BLM has reallocated money Congress intended for wildlife conservation to spending on energy. A national evaluation by the agency of its wildlife expenditures found three years ago that about one-third of designated wildlife money was spent "outside" of wildlife programs.

An internal BLM follow-up study found last year that this widespread diversion of money has caused "numerous lost opportunities" to protect wildlife. The study found that the unwillingness of the agency to use wildlife money for conservation programs has "reduced ability to conduct on-the-ground restoration" and made the BLM unable "to conduct adequate inventory and monitoring of habitats and populations."

The sum effect of these diversions, the study said, has damaged the credibility of land-use planning by the BLM. These findings were echoed last year in a report by the Government Accountability Office, which said that BLM managers order their field staff to devote increasing time to processing drilling permits, leaving less time to mitigate the consequences of oil and gas extraction.


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