Local officials are working to protect $1 million in tax revenue from a weasel living in Moffat County.
A population of black-footed ferrets was brought to Moffat County in 1998 with plans to reintroduce the animal into the wild. When released, the ferrets could halt private use of land in the county because they are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Changes to Colorado laws in 1999 were designed to weaken negative effects on private landowners after the reintroduction of protected animals.
House Bill 1229 prohibits the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from starting a reintroduction program without state approval and local input. This legislation will be tested for the first time by the black-footed ferret reintroduction into Moffat County.
Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson and members of other local interest groups testified before the Colorado Senate Agriculture Committee to lessen the impact the ferrets may have on area industry and existing land users.
The ferrets have been living atop an abandoned prairie dog colony surrounded by wire mesh fencing 90 miles northwest of Craig, near Irish Canyon, since Nov. 12, 1998.
The Black-Footed Ferret Recovery and Implementation Team (representing the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife) has been trying to establish a breeding population for Colorado and Utah.
The black-footed ferret is an endangered species once believed to be extinct during the mid 1970s until a small population was discovered in Sybille Canon, Wyo., in 1985.
Once the ferrets are released in Moffat County, Dickinson and private business groups want to make sure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't protect the ferret to the point of interfering with industry or other private landowners.
According to Dickinson, the reintroduction will not threaten land use interests in the area if the parties involved follow the legislation.
"They are doing the ferret reintroduction in the right way if everyone plays by the ground rules," said Dickinson. "That is a substantial 'if.'"
The ground rules are six amendments to the legislation (House Bill 1314). They are designed to limit the impact of the ferret reintroduction program on land users in the area and the ferret reintroduction could affect some of the top taxpayers in the county.
Steve Andrews, Colorado Farm Bureau president, doesn't have quite as much faith in the amendments that will protect landowners. He believes there is just too much at risk and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still has too much control over the project and could list the ferret at any time.
"Then we would be under the stringent protections of the ESA and farmers and ranchers would once again be subject to the government telling us how to farm our land," said Andrews.
If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was able to come in under the blanket of the Endangered Species Act and threaten business, Moffat County could lose more than $1 million in tax revenue from Wexpro and Texaco. Number six and number eight, respectively, on the tax list, the two companies have natural gas and oil interests in western Moffat County.
The six amendments designed to protect land users and industry interests in the area are:
A House amendment stating the DOW has to consult with any parties that will be affected by ferret reintroduction.
A Senate amendment states the DOW has to write an annual report to the state to asses if there are any impediments to private landowners or water rights. The report must also state what is being done to correct impediments.
A Senate amendment authorizes the DOW by legislation to enforce the management plan of the ferret reintroduction up to and including litigation. The management plans have assured Moffat County and other interest groups that use of land will not be affected by the reintroduction program.
A Senate amendment also makes it clear the ferrets can't be moved. It would take legislative approval to take the ferrets anywhere else.
A Senate amendment states any ferret outside the reintroduction area has to be returned to the area by the DOW if requested, thereby keeping the rules of the Endangered Species Act in the reintroduction area.
The last Senate amendment states nothing in the reintroduction affects private landowners' ability to conduct prairie dog management.
"What these amendments do is give all of us a big comfort level," said Dickinson. "We don't want anyone to come in here and jerk the rug out from under our feet.
"We are not afraid of the ferret. The ferret is a part of the eco system that controls the prairie dog. What we are afraid of is the rules of the Endangered Species Act."
The Colorado Farm Bureau objects to the reintroduction of the ferret even if there was no threat of the endangered species act.
"We still think the program is a waste of money with the recovery plan budget totaling more than $90,000 in addition to the costs of feeding and caring for the ferrets in captivity," said Steve Andrews, Farm Bureau president. "The DOW should be spending its time and money on more pressing issues, such as habitat partnership programs and other voluntary wildlife enhancement programs."
Despite the objections of the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed House Bill 1314, which along with the black-footed ferret allows for the reintroduction of the bonytail chub.