August 24, 2005

New Mexico Falcon Sighting Fuels Drilling Fight

SANTA FE (AP) -- Federal workers eating lunch this month on Otero Mesa spotted two endangered aplomado falcons, the first sighting of the rare birds in years and another weapon in a battle by state officials and environmentalists against drilling on the mesa.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has proposed allowing drilling on parts of the mesa in south-central New Mexico. Earlier this year, it approved a plan to guide such development.

Otero Mesa contains the nation's largest contiguous patch of rare black gramma grass, which takes decades to re-establish and is not available as commercial seed. In addition, environmentalists have raised concerns about possible water contamination.

The state in April filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the BLM's plan as not doing enough to protect grasslands and wildlife. Gov. Bill Richardson has proposed setting aside 640,000 acres of the 2 million-acre mesa as a national conservation area.

The BLM has said its management plan for Otero Mesa drilling is the most restrictive it has ever proposed.

However, Nicole Rosmarino, conservation director for Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians, said the group hopes the falcon sighting "provides more basis for the Fish and Wildlife Service to insist the BLM revise its drilling plan."

The birds were found in an area where the oil industry has expressed interest, she said.

Hans Stuart, a spokesman for the BLM, said the agency is not proposing oil and gas drilling near where the falcons were seen.

"The falcons will be protected," he said. "We don't see a need to reopen the planning process."

Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said Tuesday that whether falcons are spotted or not should not impact the resource management plan because the falcon was discussed throughout the six-year process of developing it and some areas of the mesa are off limits to drilling because of the bird.

"The aplomado falcon in that part of New Mexico is not a new subject," he said, adding: "To suggest a small area in a 2 million-acre area ought to quell everything ... that's emotional obstructionism rather than the science to be found in the resource management plan."

BLM range specialists who stopped for lunch Aug. 11 on the mesa saw the falcons and photographed one. They watched a group of kestrels harassing the falcons for about 15 minutes.

The sighting is the third on Otero Mesa since 1991 and the 11th in the general area.

Stuart said the BLM's original consultation considered the potential for occasional sightings.

The BLM's determination that its plan was "not likely to adversely affect" aplomado falcons was in part based on the fact such falcons had not been seen on the mesa in years.

Rosmarino said this month's sighting represents significant new information.

"This is inexcusable for them to say they don't have to go back and take a second look," she said.

A Fish and Wildlife official said he didn't know whether another consultation is needed.

"This is certainly an exciting development," said Lyle Lewis, endangered species branch chief for the agency. "A lot depends on what these two birds actually mean and we just don't have the answers yet."

Questions include whether the birds are adults and whether they are nesting or just passing through the area.

A New Mexico State University wildlife biologist who developed a habitat model for aplomado falcons said the BLM needs to reconsider land management practices that will fragment desert grasslands.

"Our current state of knowledge on aplomado falcons indicates that these falcons are likely to be detrimentally affected by alternation and loss of grassland habitat," biologist Kendal Young said in a statement.

The BLM last month leased 1,600 acres on Otero Mesa, although no drilling will be done right away under an agreement with the state.

George Yates, president and chairman of Heyco Energy Group in Roswell, which got the lease, said Tuesday he had not heard about the falcons.

But, he said, "the BLM order sets aside habitat for aplomado falcons, so I don't think there would be any effect on the issuance of a lease."