Wyoming leases 3,900 pristine acres for oil and gas

Rancher and landowner Pat O'Toole checks in as his crew of hired Peruvians dock and castrate lambs recently in the Little Snake River Valley. O'Toole, along with other landowners, conservation groups and wildlife agencies, are concerned at the prospect of future energy development in the rich valley after the state approved leasing 3,900 acres around the area. (Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune)

BAGGS, Wyo. — In a normal year, Pat O’Toole might be more worried about the coyotes that killed 10 of his lambs the night before.

But O’Toole’s flock now faces a different threat in the form of a Colorado company’s plans to drill an unknown number of oil and gas wells here in the Little Snake River Valley, a verdant stretch of rolling country straddling Wyoming’s border with the Centennial State.

“It could destroy our land,” O’Toole said this week after watching a team of hired Peruvian sheepherders dock and castrate this year’s lambs in preparation for their two-week journey from the valley into the lush highlands of the Medicine Bow National Forest.

“You talk to the people in Douglas and the people in Buffalo, and they say you can’t range land when you have that kind of development,” he said. “It’s not a compatible use.”

Earlier this month, the State Loan and Investment Board approved the lease of almost 3,900 acres of state land around Battle Mountain to GRMR Oil and Gas for $26,931.

The state’s decision exposed long-simmering tensions over the use of public land in Wyoming at a time when oil development is on the rise.

Conservation groups, wildlife agencies and some landowners opposed leasing of the area, arguing that development threatens crucial habitat for elk, mule deer and sage grouse, among other species.

“When you have a nationally and internationally recognized resource, you don’t trade it off for a $1 an acre,” said O’Toole, who has emerged as a vocal critic of GRMR’s plans. “How could you give up a sustainable, long-term resource for a short-term resource?”

Wyoming officials said they are constitutionally obligated to lease state lands for mineral development to raise money for public schools.

And they noted that the lease contains a series of stipulations aimed at reducing the impact to wildlife, ranging from seasonal work stoppages designed to protect deer and sage grouse to buffer zones around streams.

“I believe the standard stipulations were protective of those concerns,” said Bridget Hill, director of the Office of State Lands and Investments. “When you put those standard stipulations on there, it is hard for someone to produce (oil or gas).”

It remains to be seen how many wells might be drilled in the valley. GRMR, a Broomfield-based company, probed 146 square miles of federal, state and private land in the region last year to evaluate its potential for oil and gas development. The company plans to do more testing this year.

Scott Hoenmans, a GRMR representative, declined to comment on the area’s development potential, saying only that the company is evaluating the region.

He called the state rules “rigorous” and said they address wildlife concerns.

“We knew what the terms and conditions were prior to bidding on those parcels, as all companies do when they participate in that auction,” Hoenmans said.

Battle Mountain earned its name from a two-day fight in 1841 between trappers and members of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes along the banks of the Little Snake River. The mountain man Jim Baker earned his reputation as an Indian fighter in the encounter, which resulted in the deaths of as many as 100 natives.

Today, oil and gas wells dot the lower Little Snake River Valley, where green rolling hills turn into dusty sagebrush steppe. But mineral development in the valley’s upper reaches is relatively limited.

Irrigation has turned the valley floor a lush green, and fences line the roads and fields. Otherwise, the area looks much as it might have in Baker’s time.

The unbroken landscape is part of the reason the valley boasts large elk and mule deer herds, said Mark Zornes, Game and Fish wildlife management coordinator for the Green River region. The valley is also home to a large number of sage grouse and Wyoming’s only population of Columbia sharp-tailed grouse.

Those populations are why Game and Fish officials from the Green River region, which covers the Little Snake River Valley, recommended that the area not be leased for development, he said.

Seasonal stipulations for big game or grouse, like the ones imposed in the GRMR lease, are helpful during an oil or gas field’s development, Zornes said. In the case of elk and deer, they minimize disturbance during key winter months, when the animals need to conserve energy, he said.

“The issue is always once the development occurs, the timing stipulations are kind of out the window. You can’t tell people they can’t check their well sites for half the year,” Zornes said. “It has always been a rub. Yeah, it buys some time.

“A lot of these companies have been real good to work with. But if you take a piece of country that has not been developed and you add development, wildlife is going to come out on the short end of the stick.”

Still, he declined to criticize the department’s ultimate recommendation to impose stipulations. Game and Fish headquarters sees the big picture, Zornes said, and is aware of other state agencies’ mandates, as well as the rules and regulations governing oil and gas development.

Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott could not be reached for comment.

O’Toole, meanwhile, plans to continue the fight to limit development here. GRMR’s plans call for drilling of the federal minerals beneath his family’s land.

The arrangement is known as a split estate. One party owns the surface and the other the minerals. Mineral ownership takes legal precedence.

The O’Tooles said GRMR has not negotiated in good faith over access to their land. The company declined comment on the negotiations.

The family, whose roots here date to the 1880s, when Baker’s son-in-law homesteaded the land, is an unlikely opponent of oil and gas. The O’Tooles have negotiated agreements allowing other oil companies to drill on their land.

“We’re certainly not against oil and gas in general. We need it. It is not only a big part of Wyoming’s economy, it’s a big part of the local economy,” Sharon O’Toole said as she bounced along in her husband’s pickup. “But again, we sort of have an oasis here that gives wildlife a place to be when it’s being developed all around us.”

Pat O’Toole, who served three terms in the Wyoming Legislature between 1986 and 1992, hopes the state devises a way to compromise.

In his view, development should be pushed away from environmentally important areas like Battle Mountain while regulatory hurdles are eliminated elsewhere to promote development.

On a recent day, he offered a tour of the Little Snake River Valley. The first stop was a wetland built by the Little Snake River Conservation District. Flocks of birds meandered on the shorelines, perched in the reeds and plied the water. A battery of oil and gas tanks loomed in the distance.

The wetland was built with tax revenue paid for by oil and gas. It has boosted local bird populations while also serving as an important water storage system, O’Toole said.

“The reality is there are a lot more solutions than nonsolutions, but we all stay in our boxes,” O’Toole said, looking out over the wetland from his truck. “If we stay in our boxes, agriculture loses.”

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