Fish fears put more drilling leases under fire

State fish » Group worried Bonneville cutthroat trout may be at risk.
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A three-decade effort to restore healthy populations of native Bonneville cutthroat trout in Utah's west desert could be curtailed if a planned oil- and gas-lease sale goes through, Trout Unlimited representatives warn.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's inclusion of 12 parcels in the Deep Creek Mountains -- set for sale the Friday before Christmas -- could threaten small, struggling populations of the fish and interfere with state, federal and private work to restore Utah's state fish in its historic waterways, said Chris Thomas, president of the Utah chapter of Trout Unlimited.

The group's objections echo those from other conservationists, the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, members of Congress and President-elect Barack Obama's transition chief -- all of whom question the Bush administration's quest to lease hundreds of thousands of acres of public land across Utah for energy development.

The BLM already has retreated under the onslaught, deferring about a third of the 360,000 acres originally planned for the Dec. 19 sale since it was announced on Election Day. Deferred parcels include some within sight of Delicate Arch, on the way to Dinosaur National Monument, near Desolation Canyon and in Nine Mile Canyon, known worldwide for its ancient tribal artifacts and rock art.

Allowing oil and gas leases in the Deep Creek Mountains, an area the BLM acknowledges has low development potential, while also conducting environmental studies of the area for drilling, has left Trout Unlimited with no choice but to protest the sale, Thomas said.

The lease parcels are in the Fillmore BLM field office area. Fillmore's long-term management plan hasn't been updated since 1988. An environmental assessment would update the resource plan for oil and gas drilling, Terry Catlin, energy team lead for BLM state office, said Wednesday.

Even with the update, the BLM still would consider the west desert not to have much potential for development, Catlin said. What's driving industry interest in the area is the Wolverine oil strike in south-central Utah near Richfield. But until there's a new discovery in the Fillmore area, Catlin added, the BLM won't change its opinion.

Trout Unlimited says Trout and Birch creeks in the Deep Creek Mountains, where organization member Don Duff rediscovered the Bonneville cutthroat trout in 1974, could be in danger if the leases lead to oil and gas exploration. Granite Creek, where the native trout have been restored, and Cottonwood Creek, a stream the organization wants to include in its recovery efforts, also are in harm's way, said Trout Unlimited spokesman Corey Fisher.