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Associated Press

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - Coalbed methane development in Wyoming and Montana should be analyzed together in one planning document for consistent management and to best avoid affecting wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

That was among the comments in 15 pages of remarks the agency sent the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on the draft environmental impact statements the BLM has prepared on coal-bed methane development.

Comments on the drafts - one for Montana, one for Wyoming - will be studied to help prepare final statements and decisions on how best to allow development in the Powder River Basin.

Preliminary plans are to allow up to 51,000 methane wells on federal land in the basin.

Brad Rogers, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said there should be more data developed on species in the basin before drilling moves forward so effects on wildlife can be gauged.

"Having a good solid baseline is extremely important to have, otherwise you're not going to be able to adequately assess what kind of changes you are going to be seeing out there," he said.

He also said the best way to ensure wildlife protection is to take a basinwide approach, irrespective of the Wyoming-Montana border and address coal bed methane development in the two states in a single document.

The Wyoming and Montana BLM offices have developed separate drafts and plan separate final statements.

Last week, the Wyoming BLM decided to postpone ending the public comment period for its draft until May 15, which is now the same deadline for the Montana draft comments.

Paul Beels, coordinator for the BLM's environmental impact statement, said developing a single document for both Montana and Wyoming was something agency officials discussed thoroughly at the outset. He said it was a complicated decision to develop separate statements.

A large part of the decision had to do with the fact that methane companies had already provided development plans for Wyoming and that the BLM would have had to rework its projections to include Montana.

It also would have been difficult to work out the different government relationships if Wyoming and Montana had been combined, Beels said. In addition, Wyoming was further ahead in methane development and had already done several environmental assessments, he said.

The statements are being done separately but consistently through monthly communication between the BLM state offices, he said.

"We've had regularly scheduled conference calls with Montana at least once a month, if not more often, and we're always checking to see who's doing what and what's going on and how to make things more consistent," he said.

"We plan on doing that all the way through these things until we finalize things."

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