Governor sympathetic to grouse concerns

Governor John Hickenlooper
Governor John Hickenlooper

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper appears sympathetic to concerns federal land-use policies to protect sage grouse habitat could hurt the economy in Western Colorado.

Meeting with elected government officials during a swing through the Western Slope that included stops in Craig, Naturita and Rifle, Hickenlooper discussed a variety of regional issues, chief among them efforts to protect areas considered habitat for the greater sage grouse.

In Rifle, Hickenlooper joined with John Salazar, state agriculture commissioner, and Reeves Brown, director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, in a meeting with the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado.

Mike Samson, a Garfield County Commissioner who also serves as chairman of the AGNC, asked Hickenlooper for help to push back against U.S. Bureau of Land Management grouse management policies deemed too restrictive. Samson also asked the governor to assign a point person at the state to work with local officials, stakeholders and the BLM to develop an alternate plan.

“None of the alternatives as presented work for Northwest Colorado,” Samson said of a draft land use plan amendment and environmental impact statement for proposed management of sage grouse habitat in lieu of a listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

As a result of a lawsuit against the federal government brought by several conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until 2015 to make a decision regarding a listing for sage grouse. The bird is currently designated as “warranted, but precluded” — meaning it might meet at least some of the criteria to be listed, but isn’t at the present time.

The BLM released an environmental impact state in August identifying alternatives for managing sage grouse habitat on federal lands in Northwest Colorado based on a study and recommendations by a federal national technical team.

Both the EIS and NTT study its alternatives are based on, have come under attack by stakeholders in the region.

Among the stakeholders’ biggest contentions are maps used by the BLM they say delineate far more land as priority sage grouse habitat than is really the case. Studies commissioned by Garfield County seem to align more closely with Colorado Parks and Wildlife maps that show a far more fragmented habitat in Northwest Colorado.

Stakeholders also have expressed concerns about the extent of proposed management restrictions that include

4-mile no-surface occupancy zones around grouse mating grounds and cumulative surface disturbance caps ranging from 3 percent to 5 percent for each of several management zones identified within the region.

Samson and others said the measures would impose “devastating restrictions on economic activity in Northwest Colorado.” Samson said there would be “negative impacts to many economic sectors in the region, including grazing, oil and gas, hunting, recreation, mining and renewable energy generation and transmission.”

Hickenlooper appeared sympathetic to the concerns, a position suggested in a statement released just hours after the AGNC hosted a press conference in late October to raise their concerns over the sage grouse issue.

The governor indicated he has already confronted the federal government over the issue and disagreements over the science behind proposed restrictions. “I have had some heated discussions with (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director) Dan Ashe,” Hickenlooper said. “Where we have lost habitat is not where we have had a high level of economic activity.”

Hickenlooper said western states must present a united front, adding, “To the federal government, we are just one state.” He said that he would use his position as head of the Western Governors Association to work on more state-based solutions.

“We want to make sure we conserve the sage grouse, but still produce the energy we need,” he said.

Hickenlooper also agreed with the request to assign a point person to work with local stakeholders and the BLM on the issue.

In addition to the sage grouse issues, the governor fielded questions on other topics, including regulations that could affect coal mining, disposition of school trust lands and broadband communication infrastructure.

The governor also discussed his response to recent ballot measures banning hydraulic fracturing in energy production and the potential for a statewide fracking ban. In Rifle, Hickenlooper reiterated his support for fracking and said a ban would equate to a “governmental taking” of privately held mineral rights.

Mesa County Commissioner John Justman asked how local entities could have input on the governor’s proposed water plan, to which Hickenlooper said there would be “plenty of opportunity” to offer input into a plan he characterized as “flexible.”

Summing up his approach to business interests and hinting at the conflicts with Washington, D.C., over sage grouse protection, the governor said, “We have plenty of common sense in Colorado. There is not so much of it in certain other parts of the country.”