Bear panel watches oil activity on east side

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An interagency panel of land and wildlife managers has turned its attention to the impacts on grizzly bears from oil-and-gas exploration and extraction on the Rocky Mountain Front.

The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Subcommittee is geared toward delisting the grizzly bear population, with a draft Conservation Strategy for doing so expected to be released this summer.

But removing the threatened Northern Rockies grizzly bear population from protection under the Endangered Species Act is still “several years out,” said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Before the species can be delisted, he said, multiple agencies “have to demonstrate that adequate regulatory mechanisms exist to make sure the population and habitat remain healthy.”

And that’s where oil extraction on the Rocky Mountain Front could come into play.

“There is concern about that,” Servheen said. “It’s something new and something we haven’t dealt with in the past.”

At a Thursday meeting at the Hungry Horse Ranger Station, the subcommittee got a primer on the issue for the first time, hearing from Bureau of Indian Affairs biologist Jarvis Gust and grizzly bear management specialists Dan Carney and Mike Madel.

Gust described how three companies have entered into different agreements with the Blackfeet tribe for exploration activities on the reservation.

On the western flank of the Blackfeet Reservation, the Anschutz Exploration Corporation now has 18 exploration wells either permitted or drilled.

Down the middle swath of the reservation, Newfield Exploration Company has 22 permits.

And on the eastern side of the reservation, Rosetta Resources has 30 permits. In addition, an environmental assessment is being developed for an additional 88 exploration wells for Rosetta.

Gust emphasized that all of the permitting is for exploration activity only, and if the companies and the tribe pursued development, that would trigger a new and more rigorous environmental review process.

But for exploration, environmental assessments are being conducted on a well-by-well basis, said Carney, the Blackfeet tribal grizzly bear management specialist.

“There’s potential, obviously, for a lot more wells,” Carney said.

Glacier National Park officials are weighing in their concerns on each of the environmental assessments conducted for Anschutz wells on the western side of the reservation near the park.

Impacts on views, night skies, air quality, water quality and grizzly bears and other wildlife are of concern. But a major theme for Glacier National Park is the piecemeal manner in which exploration activity is being reviewed.

“Given the number of EAs prepared for exploratory wells on the Blackfeet Reservation, the park believes an Environmental Impact Statement is needed to address the entire scope and plan for exploratory and permanent oil and gas development,” the park wrote in comments for one well.

“Cumulative impacts to park and Reservation resources cannot be adequately addressed on a well-by-well basis.”

Michael Jamison, a spokesman for the National Parks Conservation Association, has similar concerns.

“To date, no one has explored fully the cumulative impacts that would be associated with full field development and the industrialization of Glacier’s front door,” Jamison said.

He said the Blackfeet Tribe is justified in exploring the economic development benefits that could result, and he thinks the oil companies should have regulatory predictability.

“But it can’t be done on a well-by-well basis,” he said. “There needs to be a more comprehensive plan.”

Farther south along the front, exploration and some drilling have been carried out on private lands. But in recent years, grizzly bears have been increasingly wandering farther into the riparian draws that cut through prairie grasslands, said Madel, grizzly bear management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Grizzly bears now are avoiding areas where there is seismic exploration activity, oil company camps and drilling pads — areas the bears were using in the past.

“They do move bears around, there’s no doubt about it,” Madel said.

Of greater concern to Madel are recent exploration company applications for seismic testing permits on state lands that directly abut the Rocky Mountain Front.

The Great Falls Tribune reported this week that two companies are seeking permits for seismic operations on 9,450 acres of lands managed by Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Because the land is considered so sensitive, the DNRC in 2006 increased its environmental review standards to protect wildlife that use that habitat.

Servheen noted that concerns aren’t limited to impacts on wildlife. Knowing full well how development of the Bakken formation has affected communities in North Dakota and eastern Montana, he said, there is growing awareness of how similar development would impact small communities along the Rocky Mountain Front.

“There’s a lot of potential impacts here, so everybody has their eyes open about what this is all about,” he said.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

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