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In Colorado, an unlikely alliance against drilling

Plans to open up a swath of wilderness are bringing hunters and environmentalists together – and reshaping state politics.

By Josh McDanielContributor of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2008

Elk Country: Natural gas extraction at the foot of the Roan cliffs, near Rifle, Colo. Drilling has also been proposed in the protected Roan Plateau Planning Area, atop the cliffs.

Bruce Gordon/EcoFlight

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Karl Van Calcar’s passion is elk hunting, and he likes to do it the hard way: by longbow. Bowhunting requires mimicking elk calls well enough to convince a bull elk he is being challenged for his herd of females. When Mr. Van Calcar is convincing, and everything goes right, the reward is an angry, 700-pound animal with massive antlers looking for a fight.

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But these days Van Calcar is the one who’s got his blood up – about what’s happening to his favorite hunting ground, a 200-square-mile plateau that stretches from the western edge of the Rockies to the Utah border. The reason? Extensive oil and gas drilling that, he says, is ruining the rugged Roan Plateau with too many roads and rigs.

Van Calcar grew up a conservative Republican and a proud member of the National Rifle Association. But the avid hunter says he’s become disillusioned with the Bush administration’s embrace of the oil and gas industry. He changed party affiliation before the 2004 election.

“The current administration has completely pushed me to the other side,” he said one day this past winter, sitting at his dining room table in Palisade, Colo.

He and other local hunters have formed an alliance with fishing and conservation groups to halt the administration’s plans to open up a part of the Roan Plateau that has been off limits to drilling. In late 2007, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to begin offering drilling leases on 70 percent of the Roan Plateau Planning Area (RPPA) – a 73,000-acre island of wilderness in a sea of industrialized energy extraction.

The coalition’s fight is part of a rising opposition of sportsmen to the effects of energy development – a force reshaping Colorado politics and altering environmental politics across the West.

“We started organizing and speaking out, loud and clear,” says David Peterson, co-chair of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and state field director for Trout Unlimited’s public lands initiative. “It was really Bush’s arrogance that created today’s conservation movement among disgruntled sportsmen, mostly traditional-values Republicans – ‘Roosevelt Republicans,’ I call them.”

The Roan has become a flash point for sportsmen because of its legendary reputation for wildlife. It is part of the range used by the world’s largest herd of migratory elk, and the massive elk and mule deer herds here attract hunters from across the US every fall, bringing in $3.8 million per year to the local economy.

Atop the plateau, wild cutthroat trout fill secluded streams that are cut off from lower elevations by 200-foot waterfalls. Bear and mountain lion stalk the aspen forests and sagebrush meadows.

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