Environmentalist concerns about elk have prompted the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to suspend coal-bed methane drilling in part of the gas-rich Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming.
About 260 elk inhabit the Fortification Creek area of juniper and rugged draws 25 miles northwest of Gillette. The herd at one point was wiped out, but the animals were reintroduced starting in the 1950s.
Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams and Lance Oil and Gas, a subsidiary of Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum, began drilling in the area last summer. Both companies had drilled about half of 250 planned wells when the BLM on Tuesday ordered a halt to allow more study of how drilling affects elk.
"We'll be looking at direct and indirect impacts to the elk herd up there, and actually past, present and future development scenarios," said Michael Madrid, branch chief for fluid mineral operations for the BLM in Wyoming.
Drilling could be allowed to resume after the BLM's Buffalo Field Office completes a new environmental assessment for the area, a process that's expected to take up to three weeks, Madrid said.
Environmentalists who opposed the drilling praised the decision.
"They've been drilling like absolute crazy in there," said Ashley Roberts, an organizer with the Sheridan-based Powder River Basin Resource Council, one of three groups that contested the drilling.
Fortification Creek is a relatively small area at the heart of a region that has had thousands of new coal-bed methane wells over the past decade.
Williams and Lance are being allowed to complete any work they've started, such as finishing wells and filling in any pipeline trenches, but won't be allowed to drill new wells, Madrid said.
Anadarko has complied with BLM regulations and is committed to balancing its operations with protecting wildlife, company spokeswoman Kimberly Mazza said Wednesday.
A message left with Williams seeking comment wasn't returned.
The Lander-based Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, a group that promotes conservation for the benefit of hunting and fishing, also contested the drilling.
"There should be ways that we can have sustainable energy development in Wyoming and not sacrifice the wildlife heritage that's so valuable to us," said Walt Gasson, the foundation's executive director.
Gasson, a former biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, previously managed the elk herd, which had some of the largest elk bucks he has seen in Wyoming that are still coveted by hunters.