At the end of 2019, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leased out more than 37,000 acres of land in northern Park County for potential oil and gas drilling. That spike in land available for oil and gas alarmed some people in the area who wondered what it could mean for wildlife—including Ken and Kathy Lichtendahl.
They've lived in Clark for over 25 years, just north of Cody and south of the Montana border, and nestled right on the edge of the Shoshone National Forest which borders Yellowstone National Park. They're worried about the elk that winter nearby, which can be seen dotting a valley. Out there, Kathy pointed to a parcel of land that could see oil and gas development soon. She said she's particularly worried about its impacts.
"That's where the elk go to calve. There's a golden eagle nest right over there in that cliff that has been active for years and years and years and years. I mean, there's coyotes, there's mill deer. There's pronghorn," she said. For the Lichtendahl's, they're not opposed to oil and gas. But they want it done responsibly.
"It just seems like there should be a way to not offer quite so much land up for leasing right in the middle of such important habitat," said Kathy.
In Wyoming, it's a lot more common to see development in the northeast part of the state, not so much here. But as of two years ago, it started to pick up in the area, which has a particularly sensitive ecosystem. People like the Lichtendahls just want to make sure the agency overseeing the process is ensuring the protection of wildlife.
The BLM said they are doing that in the way of a lot of analysis. This includes reports submitted by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. It determined the only regulation for these parcels was related to the active raptor nest stating no surface use is allowed within one fourth of a mile of an active nest. Impacts to the elk habitat are not addressed.
"When we took a look at those parcels and overlaid on with our wildlife layers, that was not something that we flagged as being an issue," said Amanda Withrowder, the Game and Fish habitat protection program supervisor. The BLM said lack of consideration around certain wildlife doesn't come from nowhere. There are many steps in the environmental review process. If there are new concerns raised by the public or another agency, they will consider it in the permit application to actually drill.
"We'll also check to see if like, anything has changed, or there's new considerations or if there's any other kind of restrictions or guidelines we need to put on that proposed development," said Courtney Whiteman, a BLM public affairs specialist.
In the end it comes down to how much the developers will actually follow those best practices set by the BLM. The parcels in question for the Licthendahl's have been leased to two small developers.
The Lichtendahl's hope that the BLM will consider the elk herd in the permit application process. But they said it's hard for the Clark community to trust the BLM and developers because of a well spill in the area back in 2006. It contaminated the river.
"If we learn from it, it has a high probability, it'll turn out well in the future," said Ken Lichtendahl. "If we don't, we'll see more and more. So I think we need to use history and learn. I think BLM wants to do it right."
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