County looking to protect gas

Sage grouse plan in the works

To protect gas development in Moffat County, residents have begun working with gas companies to complete a sage grouse management plan.

The working group met with representatives from Tom Brown Inc. and Western Gas Resources Inc. last week to open a dialogue on management of the greater sage grouse, said Jeff Comstock, Moffat County Natural Resources Department director.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting a study to determine whether the greater sage grouse requires protection under the Endangered Species Act. They're scheduled to make a decision by the end of the year.

The county's sage grouse working group opposes a listing of the greater sage grouse. Indeed, the purpose of the plan is prevent the need for a greater sage grouse listing, said Jean Stetson, a member of the working group.

"We don't want sage grouse populations to plummet," Stetson said. "If they got listed, it would curtail all kinds of activities."

It's a sentiment shared by Brad Petch, a biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife who has been active in the sage grouse working group.

"If that species gets listed, life will change for all of us, and it's hard to find a good change in that," Petch said.

Some have called the greater sage grouse the new spotted owl. When the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species, the timber industry in the Northwest United States ground to a halt. But Petch said a sage grouse listing could have a much greater effect than the spotted owl had. Because the sage grouse has such a wide range, many more industries and activities stand to be affected.

Stetson stressed that the working group opposes a listing because it could hinder many uses of public and private lands.

"Our ability to use natural resources is our economy," Stetson said.

That's why much of the discussion regarding greater sage grouse management has focused on Great Divide. That area's sagebrush provides some of the biggest expanses of sage grouse habitat in the county, and it is also the area where the most drilling has been proposed, Comstock said.

"Moffat County is the most intense area for sage grouse. Other parts (of Colorado) have sage grouse, but they don't have gas activity," said Kathy Hall, Western Slope representative of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

One needs to look to Wyoming to find similar situations. Since the early 1980s, that state has enforced regulations to maintain its sage grouse population, said Stephen Flaherty, government relations representative with Western Gas Resources, a gas company active in Great Divide and Wyoming.

During breeding season from March 1 to July 31, energy companies are restricted from conducting any form of activity within two miles of a sage grouse lek, or nest. The rest of the year, companies are restricted from activities within one-quarter of a mile of a lek.

Flaherty didn't say what his company is doing to conserve sage grouse in Moffat County. He did say Moffat County is much further along in the sage grouse planning process than other regions of Colorado.

Fish and Wildlife's sage grouse study was prompted by a petition filed by a coalition of conservation groups concerned about the continued decline of sage grouse populations.

"The sage grouse stands right in the path of the stampede to increase oil and gas drilling across the West," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist for Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

"The federal agencies could employ new technologies like directional drilling to produce oil and gas while staying out of sensitive sage grouse habitats, but instead the current policy is to plunk down roads and drilling pads right in the middle of the most important nesting areas."

The sage grouse working group has focused on creating rules for the spacing of wells and developing regulations for drilling during breeding seasons, Petch said.

The working group is looking at ways to minimize the impact of roads to wells and would like to see gas companies reclaim drill sites quickly, Petch said.

Right now, there is little research on the impact of energy development on sage grouse populations, Petch said. Most of the research that has been done has come out of Wyoming, spurred by rapid coal bed methane development in greater sage grouse habitat.

For example, Petch said no one has scientifically determined at what distance from a road sage grouse still are impacted, or how degrees of activity on a well pad affect sage grouse displacement.

"We probably won't have enough information for a long time ... and we don't have time," Petch said.

Petch said the working group would like to have a completed plan by June.

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

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