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Rocky Mountain News: Colorado wildlife agency, Shell propose land exchange

By Judith Kohler, Associated Press
March 9, 2007

A land swap is in the works between an energy company and the Colorado Division of Wildlife in a basin that is home to what is believed to be the country’s largest mule deer herd.

The proposal would exchange 3,108 acres in the Piceance State Wildlife Area west of Meeker for 1,800 acres owned by Shell Frontier Oil & Gas Co. in the Oak Ridge State Wildlife Area to the east.

Both sites are in northwest Colorado where natural gas development is flourishing.

Plans have been in the works for a while for the exchange, which would allow both the company and state to consolidate their land holdings, said Ron Velarde, manager of the state Wildlife Division’s northwest district.

”It actually benefited both parties, or else we wouldn’t have done it,” Velarde said Friday.

He said a public meeting was held on the proposal last June in Meeker. The Colorado Wildlife Commission and a legislative committee have considered it.

An environmental assessment written by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agency on the exchange is open for comment until April 1.

”This is kind of a slap in the face with what we’re doing,” said Bob Elderkin of Silt, on the board of the Colorado Mule Deer Association.

Elderkin has been a driving force behind a set of statewide guidelines for minimizing energy development’s impacts on wildlife. Some of the guidelines, endorsed by 55 Colorado conservation, hunting and fishing groups, have been incorporated into a bill moving through the state Legislature.

Elderkin said he ”hadn’t heard a peep” about the land swap until this week. He said one of his concerns is that the area is home to the country’s largest migratory deer herd.

”Right now they’re writing off the Piceance (Basin). It’s gone, with absolutely no guarantee the same thing isn’t going to happen elsewhere,” said Elderkin, a retired U.S. Bureau of Land Management employee who used to help oversee energy development.

Velarde disputed Elderkin’s assessment.

”We are not giving up anything anywhere,” Velarde said.

If the land is swapped, the Division of Wildlife would still own at least 20,000 acres in the Piceance State Wildlife Area, Velarde said.

The wildlife agency bought the land in the 1950s with federal funds earmarked for wildlife habitat and research.

The seven parcels Shell would acquire are next to land the company owns or leases from the federal government. Shell has won federal approval for oil shale research and development projects on three sites in the area.

The state doesn’t own the rights to the minerals under the land in the Piceance State Wildlife Area. It doesn’t own the mineral rights to the 1,800 acres in the Oak Ridge State Wildlife Area, just to the west of the Flat Tops Wilderness.

But the environmental analysis of the proposed swap says energy development in the Oak Ridge site is ”highly unlikely” considering what’s known of the geology. The land is described as ”high quality big game habitat” while the parcels in the Piceance wildlife area ”exhibit reduced wildlife habitat values” in part because of drought and increasing mineral development.

Velarde said the swap will allow the Wildlife Division to connect two parts of the Oak Ridge area now separated by private land.

The Piceance land is appraised at about $3 million and the Shell parcels are valued at $2.8 million. Velarde said Shell would make up the difference in cash.

Velarde noted that land exchanges aren’t new to the division. Swaps in the 1980s created three new state wildlife areas.

The land exchange might be a good deal for wildlife, said John Smeltzer, a retired assistant director for the Division of Wildlife. But Smeltzer said he and other members of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, a wildlife and hunting advocacy group, have questions, including how sure the state can be that no energy development will occur in the Oak Ridge State Wildlife Area.

URL: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_5407204,00.html

Copyright 2007, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

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