There were few takers Thursday for proposed oil and gas leases in a northern Colorado mountain valley prized by hunters and anglers.
Only two of 11 offered parcels netted bids in the Bureau of Land Management’s quarterly auction. About 1,470 acres out of a total of 11,073 up for lease in the area were bid on.
The low interest follows a flurry of criticism and formal protests by a coalition of hunting and angling groups that said the area 140 miles northwest of Denver is an inappropriate place to drill because of its importance as wildlife habitat. It is also the headwaters of the North Platte River.
“This is some of the most biologically rich wildlife habitat in the state,” said John Gale of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the groups that formally protested the proposed leases.
The proposed leases were among nearly 19,000 offered on federal land across the state. The BLM has sold leases on a total of 9,114 acres for $426,322.
The state of Colorado will receive 49 percent of the revenue.
Before Thursday’s sale, the BLM withdrew thousands of acres in North Park after considering state wildlife officials’ concerns about the potential impact on sage grouse, whose numbers have dropped across the West. The area is in North Park, a roughly 8,000-foot-high valley nearly encircled by mountains and encompassing the 24,800-acre Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge and North Platte headwaters.
A coalition of groups that filed protests with the BLM says the area is in the middle of migration routes for elk, mule deer and pronghorns and are home to moose, fisheries and sage grouse breeding grounds.
But the area is also no stranger to energy development, BLM spokesman Steven Hall said. “Oil and gas development has been going on in North Park since 1925.”
Permits have been issued for roughly 230 wells on private and federal land in North Park, and 107 wells have been drilled, according to BLM figures.
Hall said it’s unclear why the leases, which were nominated by companies, didn’t gain more interest. They garnered only the minimum bid of $2 per acre. But Hall said it’s a misperception that offering leases for sale means “there’s going to be a drilling rig there imminently.”
Conservation groups had questioned the wisdom of encouraging development because the BLM’s management plan for the area was written in 1984. They say a 26-year-old plan is inadequate for current conditions.
Hall said the plan has been updated and amended through the years.
Conservation groups, however, believe some places are just not appropriate for drilling and all the roads and facilities that go along with energy development. They point to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s pledge to more closely scrutinize leasing of public lands.
“I have strong personal feelings about maintaining the integrity and heritage of Western landscapes because of the way my family has been able to enjoy public lands,” Gale said. “I want to be able to look my daughter in the eye and say I did everything I could to make sure it’s done right.”