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Environmentalists, new energy seek common ground at Pawnee Buttes

For hikers who took a walk to the Pawnee Buttes on Christmas Day, the experience provided a view of more than just the two buttes and the Cedar Creek wind farm to the north.

Hikers that day also saw an oil rig drilling a well on property to the west of the buttes – evidence of a rush to look for oil far beneath the ground in the Niobrara formation.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the buttes and the Pawnee National Grasslands, has declared the buttes themselves off-limits to oil and gas exploration, but the agency is in the midst of an approval process for an energy company to explore for oil on public grasslands using a “vibroseis” seismic test.

While energy development in the grasslands may be a boon for oil companies and nearby towns, it may have impacts on other businesses and organizations reliant on high quality wildlife habitat in the plains.

The national grasslands and the private and state land around them attract bird watchers from all over the world each spring to see birds found in few other places.
WildWings, one of the companies seeking a permit to lead a bird tour on the national grasslands in 2011, is based in the United Kingdom.

“We go there to see the mountain plover and the chestnut collared longspur and the McCown’s longspur,” said Forrest Davis, president of Sierra Vista, Ariz.-based High Lonesome BirdTours, which is in the process of obtaining a permit to lead a commercial birding trip into the grasslands in 2011. “It’s one of the best places in the country to see those birds.”

High Lonesome Bird-Tours, which leads trips all over the world, makes the Pawnee National Grass-lands a major stop on a tour that includes birding hot spots all across Colorado.

Many of the birds High Lonesome looks for nest on the ground, and the Forest Service prevents the tourists from leaving gravel roads so the birds won’t be disturbed, Davis said.

Energy development could disrupt those birds, he said.

“You talk about impact,” he said. “I don’t have any problems staying on the roads. You’d disturb their nesting grounds. These birds nest on the ground. Anything that impacts on that will be pretty major.”

The Audubon Society has designated the grasslands an important bird area in order to bring attention to the area as vital to a variety of bird species, said Bill Miller, president-elect of the Fort Collins chapter of the Audubon Society.

The energy development coupled with the nearby wind farm makes preserving bird habitat especially complicated, he said.

“The construction of roads slices and dices the countryside into smaller and smaller areas,” he said. “Especially if there are transmission towers for windmills involved, birds will leave an area, and this basically spells out the demise of nesting territory. They view these tall structures as being potential perch sites for raptors that prey on birds whether there are raptors there or not.”

Joel Hurmence, a former president of the Fort Collins Audubon chapter, said the potential impact from the seismic test proposed for the grasslands is hard to measure.

Houston-based Geokinetics is proposing to drive large “thumper” trucks across the landscape to conduct its vibroseis test. The trucks will allow the company to create a three-dimensional acoustic image of the geology beneath the grasslands as part of its search for oil, Pawnee National Grasslands minerals program manager Vernon Koehler said in October.

“We’re anticipating vegetation to be crushed,” he said.

But Hurmence said those tests may not have a tremendous impact on birds depending on the time of year the tests are conducted.

However, Miller said, “every time you have a negative impact, you very rarely will have the same wildlife species using the area immediately after those impacts, and it could be for a long term.”

Elizabeth Ivers, a spokeswoman for EOG Resources, which is the major oil and gas player in the area, declined to comment. A spokesperson for Noble Energy, the other big oil and gas operator in the area, could not be reached due to the holidays.