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An environmental group says it is opposed to the proposed sale of oil and natural gas rights in the Milk River Natural Area and other native grasslands in southern Alberta.

The United Conservative government is holding an auction, which closed at noon Wednesday.

The Alberta Wilderness Association said in a letter to the province earlier this week that it has long been interested in conservation of native grasslands. It noted that less than half of native cover remains in Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region and it is highly fragmented.

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“We want to make sure they will not be disturbing any native grasslands,” Grace Wark, conservation specialist with the group, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Wark said the group is concerned about any development within the Milk River Natural Area because it contains grasslands that are home to threatened populations of swift fox and the greater short-horned lizard.

Alberta Energy said in a statement that the auction was a regular posting of available oil and gas leases and noted there have been no changes in government policy related to those leases.

“As is stated in the public offering document, since this lease lies beneath a natural area, established under the Public Lands Act, surface access is not permitted, nor is any other development within the natural area,” said the statement.

“This is not unusual as there are a variety of ways that producers can develop reservoirs without disturbing the land above them, such as directional or horizontal drilling.”

Wark said that’s still a concern, because the entire area consists of intact native prairie and species-at-risk habitat.

Even horizontal drilling, she said, could damage the grasslands around the Milk River Natural Area.

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Wark said there are four other proposed leases outside that area that have native prairie and those parcels don’t have any additional restrictions.

“All of this is a red flag for us because we want to make sure if new wells are going in, that they are happening on top of existing disturbance and that they are not continuing to fragment what little native grasslands we have left here in Alberta.”

Some of those four parcels contain endangered northern fescue grasslands.

When native grasslands get fragmented, it can disrupt life-cycle requirements for the animals that live there, Wark said. It can also interrupt migration for birds.

Alberta Energy added that obtaining a lease doesn’t guarantee exploration or development.

“It’s only gives a proponent rights in that subsurface panel – which they can produce only after and if they get all of the requisite regulatory approvals and surface rights access,” said the statement. “All proposed projects continue to be subject to rigorous review by the Alberta Energy Regulator, and subject to Alberta’s land-use policies, including regional plans.”

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