Wildlife refuge manager deflects criticism

County commissioners from Colorado, Utah air complaints

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County commissioners who deal with Browns Park Wildlife Refuge commonly complain the refuge manager doesn't communicate well with them.

On Wednesday, they gave him a piece of their minds.

Complaints centered on refuge management's resistance to participate in a study, proposed by the Colorado State Land Board, to determine the appropriateness or inappropriateness of livestock grazing on two State Land Board parcels of land within the refuge. The State Land Board manages Colorado's land trusts to generate money for public education.

But Jerry Rodriguez, refuge manager, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that oversees the refuge, has already determined livestock grazing does not further the refuge's mission to provide habitat for migratory birds. Moreover, he said the study doesn't dig deep enough to determine the impact of grazing on migratory birds.

"Five wildlife biologists said this is a proposal to write a livestock grazing plan, not a habitat management plan," Rodriguez said.

The debate focuses on two parcels of land along the Green River that the State Land Board used to lease to the refuge. In 1999, the land board signed a contract to sell the in-holdings to the refuge. The deal fell through when the Moffat County commissioners protested it.

The commissioners insist the refusal to participate in the study is another example of the refuge's unwillingness to cooperate with its neighbors when making land management decisions.

"The lack of partnership in the study is indicative of a failure to work together," Commissioner Les Hampton said.

He complained that when the refuge tore down corrals on either side of the Green River by the Swinging Bridge, the county was not notified until afterwards.

"That helps to establish the working relationship we do not have," Hampton said.

The corrals have since been rebuilt.

Hampton charged that Fish and Wildlife wants to turn the refuge into "a non-human use sanctuary." He said Rodriguez has proposed closing campgrounds along the river and eliminating parking in the refuge. Closing the campgrounds could adversely affect the river rafting industry in Utah, outfitters there say.

Rodriguez replied that the non-human use charge, commonly leveled in Moffat County, is far from the truth. In reference to the campgrounds, his intention was to study the recreational uses of the refuge to determine what complemented their mission.

If a use such as camping detracted from the mission, it could be eliminated through a step-down plan. But due to a lack of funding, such a study won't happen for a couple years, Rodriguez said last April.

Meanwhile, the State Land Board's study is going forward and a final draft is due in October. The study will cost the State Land Board $37,500.

Rodriguez has said Fish and Wildlife will purchase the land for whatever the State Land Board deems it's worth. They have previously offered $253,000 for the parcels, which cover a total of 1,300 acres of land.

Rodriguez renewed the offer to purchase at the meeting, and Britt Weygandt, State Land Board executive director, told him the board would make that decision once the study was complete.

"We don't have all the information necessary without going to a third party. Do we have a good basis to figure out if Fish and Wildlife is the best lessee?" Weygandt said.

Rodriguez is not optimistic that the outcome will be in the refuge's favor.

The refuge permitted traditional livestock grazing until a manager in the 1980s or early 1990s noticed it was having a detrimental effect on migratory bird habitat. In 1994 the refuge banned livestock grazing, but "trespass grazing" has occurred every year since then, Rodriguez said.

Wildlife grazing still occurs on the refuge, he said. Many forms of wildlife, including wintering elk, deer, mice and rabbits graze in the refuge.

Moffat County and Uintah County, Utah, have both requested cooperative agency status with the refuge, and commissioners from Daggett County, Utah, plan to do the same.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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