Three conservation groups filed suit against the Interior Department in federal court Tuesday over a plan to open an ecologically fragile piece of northeast Wyoming to the development of hundreds of coal-bed methane wells.

The groups, including two from Wyoming, seek to protect the expansive Fortification Creek area from natural gas development OK’d by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in August.

“In Wyoming, we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our elk for energy development,” said Lew Carpenter, the National Wildlife Federation’s regional representative for Wyoming, in a news release. “In its analysis of the project, the BLM trivialized the importance of this herd. This is a clear failure to acknowledge Wyoming’s well-established hunting custom and culture, and a failure to recognize the rarity of such a plains elk herd.”

Wyoming groups the Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Wyoming Outdoor Council joined the NWF in filing the suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The Fortification Creek area is composed of 100,655 acres in Campbell, Johnson and Sheridan counties, and is home to a rare prairie elk herd and large areas of steep slopes and sensitive soils.

The BLM first began receiving development requests for the land from companies in 2005 and spent years hashing through controversial options to both allow development and protect the area.

The plan the agency ultimately adopted opened the way for companies Anadarko, Yates Petroleum and High Plains Gas to begin phased-in gas development in the area starting this year.

The suit names the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as leaders of both agencies and the heads of the Wyoming state BLM office and the Buffalo field office.

The Fortification Creek area is in the Powder River Basin, home to tens of thousands of coal-bed methane wells.

With natural gas at a rock-bottom price, coal-bed methane development has slowed in the basin. Yet producers must still drill wells to fill pipelines and fulfill contracts, said Bruce Hinchey, president of the industry group Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

“I think the area will be developed responsibly, and I think the companies have shown they would do that,” he said. “And it would protect the environment and resources there, and there would be minimal disturbance to animals.”

But some of those in the basin allied with one of the groups filing the suit say the area shouldn’t be sacrificed to help producers fill their pipelines.

“In the Powder River Basin, where tens of thousands of wells have already been drilled, and hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat already disturbed, Fortification is the last refuge left in the Powder River Basin, and drilling has to be done right with consideration of wildlife and the fragile landscape,” said Gary Packard, a neighboring rancher and member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, in a news release. “For years, we’ve tried to get BLM to require better protections, but the agency seems more inclined to listen to an ailing natural gas industry than folks like us who have lived out here for multiple generations.”

A Interior Department spokesman said the department, which overseas the BLM, had no comment on the suit.

Reach Jeremy Fugleberg at 307-266-0623 or jeremy.fugleberg@trib.com. Read his blog at http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/boom/ and follow him on Twitter: @jerenergy.

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