ROCK SPRINGS — Traveling south from Rock Springs it looks like another series of gray bluffs. But driving closer, inside of the Little Mountain area, you see hundreds of thousands of acres of deep canyons, winding creeks, sheer cliffs, wetlands, junipers and sagebrush.
“It’s the Yellowstone National Park of Sweetwater County,” said Mark Zornes, Green River wildlife coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Countless elk, mule deer and antelope call the area home, thriving there during southwest Wyoming’s harsh winters. Native Colorado cutthroat trout live and spawn in the creeks that run sometimes as narrow as a chair and others as wide as a truck.
It’s almost all public land, owned by either the Bureau of Land Management or the state of Wyoming.
The greater Little Mountain area is about half a million mountainous acres, supporting elk, mule deer, antelope and cutthroats along with moose, black bear, mountain lions and several species of grouse. It attracts thousands of hunters and anglers every year. In November, a small oil and gas company applied for a permit to drill an exploratory well there.
The company says at most it will drill only seven wells. Sportsmen’s and conservation groups worry if development starts without a clear plan for the future, one of southwest Wyoming’s most naturally diverse areas could suffer death by a thousand cuts.
Potential for development
About 100 hunters, anglers, politicians, ranchers and recreationists showed up at a Bureau of Land Management open house Tuesday night in Rock Springs to learn more about the potential development.
Formal boundaries for the greater Little Mountain area vary. The Greater Little Mountain Coalition – a group of sportsmen’s and labor groups – defines the area as about 520,000 acres starting south of a mix of public and private land below Rock Springs and running to the Utah border.
Within that area, about 70 percent of the land either is or could be leased for oil or gas development, said Douglas D. Linn, fluid minerals supervisor for the Rock Springs BLM office.
Development is restricted in some sections by the amount of time drilling is allowed or if any surface activity is allowed at all, he said.
Several companies in the past have either drilled or proposed drilling in the region, but development has been limited, said Steven Brutger, Wyoming energy coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a member of the Greater Little Mountain Coalition.
The proposed exploratory well would be drilled about 16,000 feet into the Dakota Formation by Azalea Oil Company LLC, a relatively small Colorado developer. The total potential project area is 4,000 acres, said manager Russell Spencer.
The company doesn’t know if it will find oil or gas, but is hoping for oil, he said. If it does decide to proceed, and BLM approves its plans, the company would drill two wells each year until it reaches seven wells.
Sportsmen’s and labor groups hope if this project proceeds, it could be a way to drill responsibly near critical habitat. But sportsmen’s groups want to know ahead of time what the area can handle, Brutger said.
If Azalea’s drilling is successful, he worries about the other leases in the area.
“While this project is important, it’s the bigger picture that’s the most important,” Brutger said.
Monte Morlock, a representative of the United Steel Workers, hunted his first elk in the Little Mountain area in 1985. He shot a seven-by-seven point and mounted the trophy as much as a memory of the hunt than the impressive rack, he said.
Hunters have between a 3 and 5 percent chance on average of drawing an elk tag in the Little Mountain area, said Rock Springs game warden Duane Kerr. It’s one of the hardest areas in the state to successfully draw because of the size and quality of the bulls and because of the unique terrain.
“Habitat issues are a big concern of ours,” he said. “The well site is in crucial winter elk and deer habitat, and crucial antelope winter range is about a mile away.”
As long as people need oil and gas, natural resource development is necessary, Rock Springs Mayor Carl Demshar said.
But the Little Mountain area is a unique resource.
“My family has been out there for years,” he said. “I’ve hunted out there and fished out there and taken my kids to cut Christmas trees out there. It could be done well, but it would need to be studied.”
The BLM originally opened the public comment period on the area until Jan. 3, but extended it to Feb. 4 because of large amounts of public interest
If the exploratory well is approved and Azalea wants to drill more wells, it will have to go through another public comment period, said Joanna Nara-Kloepper, the assistant field manager for minerals and land in the BLM Rock Springs office.
Joshua Coursey, president of the Muley Fanatics Foundation, hopes whatever the outcome of the exploratory well, the public is and stays involved in the process.
“We want to be part of the solution. We are not anti-development,” he said. “But let’s get stewardship at the front. This is a really premier area.”