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Our View: BLM’s big game plan must protect further

We revere our big game here in Colorado.

With conservation rising on the radar at the Bureau of Land Management, we’re glad BLM’s Colorado office is giving wildlife better attention with its Draft Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment, which covers 8.3 million surface acres and 4.7 million acres of mineral estate.

But the plan must go further.

This federal agency must align closer with Colorado’s values and wildlife investments, evidenced in much construction of overpasses to protect both animals and drivers. The BLM has to broaden its scope and address any compromise to the resiliency of our elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep.

No doubt, oil and gas development, and encroachment on wildlife habitat are formidable threats. BLM acknowledges negative impacts. But it’s not just oil and gas. We all have a part in it.

Conservation groups noted three strategies for the agency to be effective: Analyzing cumulative impacts from multiple users, including sportsmen, grazers and recreationists; closing habitat to oil and gas development with no known or minimal potential for production success; and ending loopholes that allow extraction in prime wildlife habitat.

These make sense.

Consider renewable energy in the form of solar farms, as well as recreational trails and roads. They all affect wildlife habitat for breeding, and where animals weather harsh winters and migrate. We Coloradans can’t resist the allure of public lands and more of us visit them in record numbers.

Meanwhile, state population keeps growing. Despite being in awe of big game and admiring their majestic qualities, people are inadvertently a menace.

To be resilient, animals must move within seasonal ranges in response to habitat conditions and landscape pressures. Any and all activities that harm the home of our iconic animals need a good look. Even if impacts appear to be light.

And with the ongoing emphasis on more housing – built faster, stretched outside city limits – big game habitat is continually squeezed.

After a settlement with the state, BLM was directed to evaluate leasing to oil and gas, and management, where big game corridors and migration have been noted. Closing areas not likely to be successful for oil and gas production is one of BLM’s alternate possibilities, with 44% of land in this category no longer open to leasing.

New oil and gas development would be concentrated in places for favorable outcome.

A solid step forward to keep intact high priority habitat.

Currently, BLM prefers leaving 86% of high priority wildlife habitat open to oil and gas. BLM should noticeably decrease this percentage.

Yes, we drive petroleum-fueled vehicles in an extractive economy. But 86% is not acceptable.

And enough with the loopholes, which remain in the form of waivers, exemptions and lease modifications. Loopholes allow production near wildlife crossings. We’re asking the BLM to lean into the science and data on survivability, and health of our big game, rather than making exceptions. No matter how long loopholes have been used.

Utah, Wyoming and Idaho may be OK with proposed figures from this federal agency. But Colorado has disparities with BLM. Emission goals being one of them.

In August 2023, Colorado updated and strengthened its law on greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, with 65% by 2035; 75% by 2040. The law also advanced a 90% reduction from 2050 to 2045. 2050 is the goal for net zero emissions.

Our state identified the oil and gas sector as being responsible for 14% of total emissions in the baseline year of 2005. Yet, BLM estimates oil production will increase by 20.4%, gas will increase by 24.9% by 2050.

Talk about being at odds.

For an agency that’s swung in the changing winds of U.S. presidential administrations, BLM now has an opportunity to do right for our wildlife. They certainly need it.

In the Southwest alone, elk calf survival rates have declined significantly since the 1980s, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. A direct indicator that things have gone wrong in the health of herds.

Current elk populations aren’t likely sustainable over the next 20 years. The BLM knows this. And its final big game management plan must reflect this.

Public comments are through Monday, Feb. 6, at http://tinyurl.com/4mdtx49u.