Officials decry federal plans to protect sage grouse

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

Government officials and business leaders from across the Western Slope have called on Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to apply more pressure to a federal agency to cooperate with local entities in developing a plan that protects both sage grouse habitat and the economy in the region.

“We are asking the governor to take the lead,” said Mike Samson, a Garfield County commissioner who also serves as chairman of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado (AGNC).

Commissioners from Garfield, Mesa, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties joined with representatives from the AGNC, Club 20, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Rifle Chamber of Commerce and White River Conservation District at a press conference in Rifle to express their disappointment in efforts by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to amend plans to protect areas deemed habitat for the greater sage grouse. The bird is classified as eligible for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, but not yet listed.

The fear is that proposed federal land use policies to protect grouse habitat could cripple the economy is enacted.

Within hours of the press conference, the governor’s office released a statement urging the BLM to “look to Colorado as a model of sage grouse management” in avoiding listing the bird as an endangered species. “Given the unique landscapes and natural resources in Colorado, a Colorado-based solution is more practical (than) one handed down by the federal government,” Hickenlooper stated in citing a 2008 state-based plan. “We hope the Bureau of Land Management will look at the public-private partnerships that have been so successful in Colorado as a model of how to get things done.”

Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said, “We’ve long supported managing sage grouse at the state level, and all our efforts are geared toward ensuring the bird is protected sufficiently to avert a listing.”

The BLM is in the process of amending land use plans for large areas of the mountain west to conserve greater sage grouse habitat. An environmental impact statement offers three alternative plans based on a national technical team report and includes such measures as disturbance caps and four-mile no surface occupancy zones around grouse mating sites.

Tom Jankovski, another Garfield County commissioner, offered an overview of the history of the sage grouse controversy and questioned several aspects of the BLM environmental impact statement — including the contention the bird is threatened. He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still permits grouse hunting.

The BLM designation of lands within Garfield County as sage grouse habitat is too broad, Jankovski said, especially on the Roan Plateau. “The Roan Plateau contains all sorts of terrain, only fractions of it that are acceptable sage grouse habitat.”

Jankovski said Garfield County expended considerable time and effort in 2008 working with the state to develop a state-based sage grouse management plan, only to have it dismissed by the BLM. “We were told the Garfield County plan was voluntary, and did not contain enough regulatory controls,” he said.

Jankovski said that there would be a “huge socio-economic loss for the county” if any of the three proposed action alternatives in the BLM EIS are adopted. “There are $34 billion worth of natural resources within the land proposed to be managed in Garfield County,” he said, adding that would translate into a $406 million loss in direct taxes over 20 years. “And that is not counting the loss of jobs or sales taxes,” he added.

Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese said the sage grouse issue is important throughout Northwest Colorado. Pugliese estimated she’s spent 65 hours on sage grouse related work — “more than I have had to spend on child abuse or child fatalities in Mesa County.”

Since 72 percent of Mesa County is public lands, the local economy is tied to natural resources, Pugliese said. As for the BLM sage grouse plans, “this could kill us,” she said.

Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers tied the sage grouse issue into larger issues highlighting the divide between rural and urban concerns in Colorado.

“The message to the governor is that 11 rural counties are wanting to leave your state,” Mathers said, referring to the secession measures on various county election ballots this fall.

Mathers said he participated in a meeting Northwest Colorado officials held with the governor to discuss the sage grouse issue, but to no avail. “We had a meeting, offering 20 years of science and experience, and were told ‘no thanks, we have our own plan.’”

Mathers invited Hickenlooper to come to Northwest Colorado, adding that Hickenlooper “is not just governor of Denver, but of the whole state.”

Gary Moyer of the White River Conservation District agreed that the BLM isn’t listening to stakeholders in developing sage grouse plans. “This was our first experience as a cooperating agency, and we invested a great deal of time and effort,” which Moyer said was disregarded. “If this is what being a cooperating agency is like, then the system is flawed.”

Moyer added: “The governor can make our voices heard.”