Bighorn sheep could be harmed by a wildcat oil well that Coors Energy Co. plans to drill in Little Canyon, seven miles northwest of Moab, according to comments by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the National Park Service.
The comments are the latest development in the controversy over an oil boom that has begun in the Moab area. A sister agency, the Park Service, takes the unusual step of warning the bureau not to proceed with drilling the Coors well until additional environmental studies are conducted.Miles Moretti, the state Division of Wildlife Resources' regional supervisor, wrote the opinion June 4 to the Bureau of Land Management, which is considering Coors' request. The National Park Service and the private Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance also have expressed reservations about the project.
"Because of these activities and occupancy in Little Canyon, the estimated 12 sheep that will be displaced by this project may abandon the project entirely," he warned.
Meanwhile, a lawyer for the environmental group notified the BLM state office Tuesday that it will appeal if the agency finds the project has no significant environmental impacts. The group asked for a stay in any approval to drill, to give the organization time to file its appeal.
Moretti wrote that the project is planned for an area classified as important for desert bighorn sheep.
He noted that the environmental assessment on the project implies that there is not enough information to tie direct losses of bighorns, or abandonment of habitat, to the project, as compared with problems caused by visitors to the same area.
"BLM cannot assume that these well-drilling activities will not have an impact on the sheep populations," Moretti wrote. "It is DWR's opinion that BLM cannot issue a FONSI (finding of no significant impact) decision based on lack of information," he said.
If the bureau issues a FONSI, drilling can proceed without further studies, assuming an appeal does not succeed. If the agency concludes that impacts would be significant, however, a full-blown environmental impact statement must be prepared before the wildcat well can be drilled.
Scientific studies document that the presence of humans causes stress in bighorns even if the sheep may not immediately run away and show stress.
Harvey D. Wickware, superintendent of national parks in the region, wrote in a cover letter to the BLM that the National Park Service's concerns are "substantially reduced" by Coors' willingness to take some actions that would make the drill rig less visible to people visiting Arches. The measures include moving the drill pad as close to a hill as possible, modifying an access road, and requiring shielding on all but the top lights on the drill rig.
In the Park Service's written comments, experts said nighttime visibility could be a concern. "The drill rig on the Columbia No. 1 well site (near Dead Horse Point State Park) was more than 18 miles away from the same road and visitors to Arches National Park asked about the lights of that platform," the statement says.
The Coors well would be less than three miles from the Arches visitor center.
The Park Service's written comments say the NPS experts agree with the environmental assessment in the statement that "there is not enough information on the bighorns in the Little Canyon area to analyze the impacts. Little Canyon may be a travel route for bighorns between Arches National Park area and the Potash area."
Not enough is known about the possible use by bighorns to predict the importance of impacts due to drilling activities, the report added.