The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

An oil rig on the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado (Photo via US Forest Service)

An hour’s drive northeast of Denver and encompassing an area twice the size of the city, the Pawnee National Grassland’s whopping diversity of songbirds and raptors has earned the area a reputation as a birder’s paradise. Some people drive hundreds of miles and fly in from around the world each summer to view mountain plovers and burrowing owls, lark buntings and McCowns’s longspurs.

But in recent years, birders have begun spotting a whole other family of beasts nesting in the Pawnee. Oil and gas drilling has skyrocketed in the area over the past decade, part of a nationwide industry boom that has tapped underground shale formations up and down Colorado’s Front Range. Just as he tracks the birds he sees, Gary Lefko notes the pump jacks and well pads that have sprung up on the grassland. On some outings, he has seen dozens of tall blue flames from flare stacks, burning off unused methane and glowing in the half dark in and around the Pawnee. Along state highway 14, which runs through the grassland, Lefko and his wife count the tank batteries — silos that store oil — and other industry equipment that keeps filling in pieces of the prairie. “There’s more every time,” Lefko says.

Amid the massive grassland, the industry impacts may not seem like much. The Pawnee still mostly looks like an empty, undeveloped canvas of greens and browns. But each new well pad and scraped patch of ground and every truck that rumbles along and kicks up dust from the dirt roads affects this subtly beautiful ecosystem. The piecemeal energy development destroys bird and wildlife habitat and alters the shortgrass prairie in ways that even scientists don’t fully understand. Some compare the impacts to death by a thousand cuts for the flora and fauna of grasslands already in decline.

“The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds”

Westword, July 28, 2015

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