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"The roads are probably the worst part of the whole drilling operation," Elderkin says. "As soon as you build a road, the public jumps on it. The American public anymore is divinely adverse to walking, and with these ATVs, you can go anywhere. Hunters are the absolute worst. They get on ATVs and they're like a bunch of goddamn chickens. They just scatter. And once you got roads and vehicles, the sound carries an unbelievable distance. With the noise and harassment, the elk just leave.
"You can see what I'm talking about right now. The first two or three days of the season, the hunting's great up there. But after that, unless you know what you're doing, you don't get nothing. Now what if you had that kind of disturbance year-round, all over the place?"
According to Colorado Division of Wildlife estimates, hunting on the plateau pumps roughly $3.8 million a year into the local economy.
"The hunting season is a big season for us," says Rifle mayor Keith Lambert. "If there's a huge change up there that affects hunting and fishing and grazing, it will have an impact on us. It's not that we're against any kind of development. It's the spacing and the infrastructure that concern us."
Industry officials maintain that deer, elk and other game are surprisingly adaptable and can often be found grazing in the shadow of gas rigs. But that hasn't been the experience of Keith Goddard, a Rifle outfitter who spends several months a year on the plateau, guiding clients through one hunting season after another. While hunting mountain lions at lower elevations, he's noticed a dwindling winter deer population between Rifle and Rulison, an area that's experienced intensive drilling in recent years.
"I've run around that country for years and years, and in wintertime, there used to be thousands of deer," Goddard says. "The last three or four years, I've seen the same dozen deer."
Goddard's business takes a hit when out-of-state hunters invade the plateau. The motorized legions drive the game into more remote areas, and that requires the outfitter to get more creative. Recently, he says, he was packing out elk on horseback when he came across some hunters on ATVs: "This guy says, 'Man, where'd you get them?' He says he'd covered a thousand miles that week and hadn't seen a single elk. I told him, 'If you cover another thousand miles, I'll keep killing elk.' They get down where people on ATVs won't go."
Goddard thinks that wildlife on top of the plateau are holding their own despite the area's increasing popularity. He's run into elk in February, when conditions on the plateau resemble a blustery day in Siberia. But if somebody starts setting up gas wells on the rim, spaced no more than forty acres apart and operating year-round, that will all change, he says.
"If they go to forty acres, it's gone," Goddard predicts. "Nobody's pushing any time restrictions on the operations. When you get into your calving and fawning areas, it's crucial that those animals aren't stressed, and vehicle noise and traffic add to the stress. That whole plateau is a calving area. It doesn't take much to change the way animals have acted for over a hundred years."
Goddard and Elderkin would both like to see the number of well pads, roads and trucks on the plateau severely limited, possibly by bringing in crews by helicopter and restricting drilling operations to particular seasons as well as less sensitive locations. But Cesark, the environmental point man for Williams -- which would presumably be one of the key bidders for gas leases on the plateau -- says that the degree of disturbance drilling would bring to the plateau has been greatly overstated.
"I find it hard to believe that many new roads will have to be built," he says. "You're going to see anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the land off-limits to surface occupancy."
Williams built fewer than four miles of roads to drill 160 wells at the base of the plateau, Cesark points out. The company makes extensive use of existing BLM roads and is using directional drilling to limit the number of new well pads. "The industry has gotten good about using the existing infrastructure and minimizing the disturbance we create," he says.
But an internal Colorado Division of Wildlife memorandum obtained by Westwordprojects that oil and gas development could produce up to 170 miles of new roads on top of the plateau, a 70 percent increase in the current road system. The same document concludes that full-scale development of the Roan planning area, both above and below the rim, would drastically reduce mule deer winter range and that removing time restrictions on drilling activities would result in "dire consequences for wildlife."
The DOW's recommendations were considerably at odds with the views of another state agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is charged with overseeing oil and gas development in the state. The final report issued by the Department of Natural Resources presents a watered-down version of the DOW's comments, recommending fewer locations for consideration as "areas of critical environmental concern" and urging that surface drilling be limited to an average of one multi-well pad per 160 acres; in other words, forty-acre sites could proliferate in some areas as long as other, overly steep or ecologically sensitive locations were left alone.