updated 12/5/2008 12:46:17 PM ET 2008-12-05T17:46:17

Two environmental groups asked a federal court to block a Canadian firm from exploratory gas drilling in a Colorado national wildlife refuge.

The groups want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do a more thorough environmental analysis before allowing Toronto-based Lexam Energy Exploration to drill two wells in south-central Colorado's Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and Citizens for San Luis Valley-Water Protection Coalition filed a motion Thursday in federal court in Denver seeking a preliminary injunction. Federal officials had said in October that the drilling would have no significant effect on the San Luis Valley refuge.

Regional Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Sharon Rose said agency officials hadn't seen the motion. Lexam didn't immediately return telephone calls for comment.

"This pristine land is a magnificent refuge for the protection of our nation's wildlife and wetlands and should not be transformed into Colorado's next oil and gas industrialized zone and sacrifice area," said Christine Canaly, the council's executive director.

Although the surface land is public, Lexam owns some of the minerals. Federal officials say the company acquired the minerals before the area was designated a refuge in 2004.

The law gives a mineral owner or lessee the right to reasonable use of the surface to extract minerals.

Travis Stills, an attorney for the environmental groups, said he doesn't believe the Fish and Wildlife Service is exercising the considerable authority it has to ensure the refuge is protected.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service, from the beginning, has downplayed its authority of the surface owner to protect their surface rights," Stills said.

The agency prepared its environmental assessment of the exploratory drilling after the groups sued.

Last year, the groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request for communications between the Fish and Wildlife Service and Lexam and with a contractor hired to write the environmental analysis.

Earlier this week, the agency said additional analysis of the drilling's potential effect on the Gunnison's prairie dog didn't change its finding that there would be no significant impacts.

Federal officials say the Gunnison's prairie dog, found at higher elevations in Colorado and New Mexico, qualifies for protection as an endangered species.

The Baca refuge, about 200 miles southwest of Denver, is home to several colonies of Gunnison's prairie dogs. The only colony within the planned exploration area is about three miles from the nearest well site, Fish and Wildlife said.

Federal officials say they will monitor the situation to see if emergency measures are needed to protect the prairie dogs.

Baca National Wildlife Refuge was created in 2004 with the acquisition of the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch. Some 31,000 acres of that ranch became part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, previously a national monument, and the rest became the wildlife refuge. The national park includes 750-foot dunes, North America's tallest.

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