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Agency Seeks Public Comment on Refuge Drilling

Jaclyn Kircher
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


Two energy companies are seeking permission to drill in the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Utah. The federal agency reviewing the proposal is now ready to hear from the public.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working for two years with the companies behind the drilling plans. Thurston Energy and Ultra Resources plan a total of 11 wells in their separate projects. The Uinta Basin already has over 10,000 oil and gas wells, so the new ones might not seem like much. But the wildlife refuge exists to safeguard wildlife and its habitat.

Sonja Jahrsdoerfer is fielding comments on the proposals for the fish and wildlife service.

“There have been a lot of issues to address and there have been a lot of things to think about in terms of trying to make sure we’re not going to have a negative effects on refuge resources,” she says. “But the companies have really been very cooperative.”

The Ouray refuge is home to several species of endangered Colorado River fish and the federal hatchery trying to keep them alive. It’s also home to the yellow-billed cuckoo, a candidate for the threatened species list. Thurston Energy CEO Ralph Curton says the company is being careful.

“We are very sensitive to the environment, “ says Curton. “We think that these wells can be drilled successfully without any, for sure, any permanent damage and hopefully without any temporary problems.”

He company has agreed to drill two wells instead of four. It won’t build during nesting times. And it will avoid trampling cactus with its roads and pipeline.  But some critics say the refuge should be off limits. Jeremy Nichols is the climate and energy director for Colorado-based WildEarth Guardians.

“It’s sacred land in an area that has been extensively degraded over the years because of oil and gas drilling and other fossil fuel development,” Nichols said. “We’re incredibly skeptical that we can have drilling and at the same protect the irreplaceable values that are found in this wildlife refuge.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will take comments on the proposal through April 8.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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