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Oil explorers spending $1 million to help protect wildlife - from them

Petroleum companies have agreed to spend $1 million to help make their operations in the hottest oil and gas exploration area in the lower 48 states more compatible with the area's wildlife.

Wyoming wildlife has suffered because of intense oil and gas exploration and development in the Overthrust Belt, a geologically complex belt straddling eastern Idaho and western Montana and Wyoming. Yet the area remains one of the few remaining in the continental US where large reservoirs of oil and natural gas remain to be discovered. In recent years, it has been the site of frantic exploratory drilling and a number of major finds. The center of activity is the rolling, sagebrush hills of the Bear River Divide around Evanston, Wyo.

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But elk, deer, antelope, moose, and other game animals live in the area. Its streams contain rare and endangered species of trout. Yet gravel roads are snaking inexorably through the hills to link the garishly colored scaffolding of the drilling rigs of Amoco, Chevron, and a number of other companies, which dot the subdued green landscape.

The undeniable result, says Douglas M. Crowe, planning coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, is that there has been an adverse effect on wildlife. ''But it's a very difficult thing to quantify. These changes are very subtle and our inventories are crude enough that it takes a long period of time for them to show up,'' he explains.

The unprecedented agreement -- between the Overthrust Industrial Association (set up by oil companies to address environmental and social impacts), the Wyoming Wildlife Federation (WWF), and federal and state officials -- was arrived at after more than a year of complex negotiations. It stems from a threat issued last year by the WWF to bring suit against the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The suit revolved around criticism by environmentalists and state wildlife officials of a BLM environmental assessment of oil and gas operations near Evanston, Wyo.

The industry was worried that such a suitwould shut down operations in the Overthrust Belt area, the hottest oil and gas exploration area in the continental US. As a result, they went to the bargaining table with WWF and government officials to work out a compromise. The oil industry is satisfied with the arrangement and WWF considers it something of a coup.

''We could have sued, and, our lawyers say, probably won. But what would we have gained?'' says Ron Smith, the WWF negotitator involved. ''This way I can see some very, very valuable things resulting. We're better off pursuing lines of cooperation, rather than confrontation, whenever possible.''

According to Charles McLean of the Denver Research Group, which administers the Overthrust Industrial Association, $40,000 will go to develop an environmental-awareness program to provide the people in the area with information about ''nonconsumptive recreation programs.'' Another $160,000 will go to state fish and game departments in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho for enforcement of wildlife protection. The remainder of the $1 million will go to a major wildlife study.

But other environmental groups in the region and some wildlife experts involved have mixed feelings about the agreement.

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''I don't know what they will do with a million dollars. I'm glad they are doing it, and I'm sure it will do some good. But I doubt if it will significantly mitigate the horrendous impact on wildlife that we're experiencing ,'' comments Bruce Hamilton, the regional representative of the Sierra Club.

''The industry hopes to get two basic things out of this: a range of wildlife mitigation strategies and the relative cost of each, and identification of environmentally sensitive areas,'' Mr. McLean says.

Critics of the agreement, however, are skeptical. They point to the complicated management structure: The study is run by a committee of representatives from all the concerned parties, each of which has veto power over any group decisions. The scope of the study has not been specified because Chevron and Amoco, the principle oil companies involved, did not agree with a study plan drawn up by Wyoming Game and Fish.

The controversial veto provision, says McLean, was adopted to keep one faction from ganging up on another. It was not adopted so the oil companies could suppress unfavorable scientific results, he maintains. All meetings of the group will be open to the press and public, he says.

The adverse effects on wildlife of the Overthrust Belt exploration are many and varied. They include workers and would-be workers squatting at critical waterholes, increased illegal poaching, and accidental release of natural gas carrying deadly hydrogen sulfide, which kills animals downwind.

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