Wyoming Bureau of Land Management officials announced Wednesday they had deferred 15 oil and gas lease parcels from being included in a Dec. 1 public auction, "pending Washington Office guidance on wilderness issues."

The lease parcels in question total 14,842 acres. The parcels reside within a citizens' proposed wilderness area at Adobe Town in south-central Wyoming -- a highly sensitive terrain decorated with sand stone spires. The area is so remote, it's usually where Wyoming's state logo is stamped on maps.

"On behalf of the Wyoming Association of Churches, we're very pleased they have done this," said Warren Murphy, environmental projects director for the association. "We hope they continue in this direction because it is a sacred place and very unique to Wyoming. It should be protected for its spiritual values, I believe, and for its recreations values."

The BLM's action comes after a request from a number of conservation groups, including the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Wyoming Outdoor Council, The Wilderness Society, Wyoming Wilderness Association and Center for Native Ecosystems.

Though pleased the BLM decided to defer the Adobe Town lease parcels, conservationists say they're concerned about a possible trend whereby oil and gas companies specifically target environmentally sensitive areas, sensing that tougher environmental regulations will come with the Obama administration.

For example, one of the few areas drilled by the coal-bed methane gas industry in the Powder River Basin this year included a highly controversial elk range in Fortification Creek.

"It looks like (industry is) taking the last remnants of momentum of the drill-anywhere-at-any-cost policies of the previous administration before new policies take root," said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

The BLM's Dec. 1 oil and gas lease sale offering also includes several parcels in areas identified by the Wyoming governor's office as "core areas" for sage grouse -- part of a plan to avoid a listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Molvar said it's a dangerous action by both the BLM and the industry given the significance that federal wildlife officials seem to have attached to the governor's "core areas" sage grouse protection strategy.

"Very clearly, the wind industry is being told they need to stay out of core areas, and they are respecting that. Whereas the oil and gas industry is proceeding ahead with investing their resources and their leasehold within sage grouse core area habitats," said Molvar.

State game and fish biologists from Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, North Dakota and Utah met with several researchers in January to review studies regarding sage grouse and energy development. The review indicated sage grouse are severely impacted by oil and gas development, even with current federal timing restrictions and surface occupancy stipulations.

"The western game and fish biologists documented that the BLM stipulations don't work at all," said Molvar. "So it's very curious to me that the BLM is still issuing leases in critical sage grouse habitat with these discredited mitigation measures."

Late last year, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in Idaho ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start another 12-month review of whether the grouse deserves federal protection, after finding that a 2005 decision against listing was inappropriately influenced by politics and not based on science.

Mary Wilson, communications director for Wyoming BLM, said the governor's core areas sage grouse habitat management plan does not preclude oil and gas leasing.

"We are still going to work with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department prior to finalizing our lease offerings, and make sure we take into consideration the governor's population objectives both within and outside those care habitat, as well as (habitat) connectivity," said Wilson.

Contact energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin.bleizeffer@trib.com. Read his energy blog at tribtown.trib.com/DustinBleizeffer/blog

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