Browns Park land-use battle looms

Grazing appropriateness at heart of studies

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Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge's first goal is to provide habitat for migrating birds. But lately the refuge has been propagating studies as well.

Refuge management is in the early stages of writing a habitat management study as a follow-up of a comprehensive conservation plan completed in 1999.

The habitat management plan comes on the heels of a public use plan that was intended to determine what human uses of the refuge are consistent with its mission of providing bird habitat. But the public use plan has been put on hold for at least the next two or three years, said Jerry Rodriguez, refuge manager.

"Typically, we'd hammer out both, but we can't in Moffat County because of the political atmosphere," Rodriguez said.

The political atmosphere has centered on arguments between county government and refuge management about multiple use at the refuge, with cattle grazing emerging as the most controversial potential use of the land. County government insists the refuge should allow grazing, but refuge management says it isn't appropriate at this time.

Because of the groups' inability to cooperate, the State Land Board, which manages Colorado's state land trusts, is conducting its own study even as the refuge starts its own.

The SLB is paying Natural Resource Options of Bozeman, Mont., $37,500 to study the appropriateness of cattle grazing on two SLB parcels within the refuge and Bureau of Land Management grazing leases to the south of the refuge.

Natural Resource Options has completed an inventory of BLM lands and is working on the SLB property, said SLB liaison Beverly Rave. The company should finish a draft of the plan by the end of October.

The SLB wanted the refuge to participate in the study, but Rodriguez declined the offer, saying the study would not be statistically valid. He's previously compared the SLB's study request to a proposal for a cattle grazing plan.

The refuge permits no grazing, but cattle have trespassed on the refuge for years. Rodriguez has defended the decision to prohibit grazing by citing two refuge studies, one performed in 1991 and the second in 1994.

He recently sent those studies to the commissioners at their request. Reading through the studies, Commissioner Les Hampton said he found research describing the benefits of grazing.

The 1994 study, Hampton said, describes grazing as a cheaper, more effective method of noxious weed control than either chemical or mechanical methods.

Rodriguez doesn't argue that grazing can be an effective tool in combating invasive plants. But for the past 150 years, the refuge has been overgrazed, resulting in the current weed problem, he said.

"We can't continue to do the same thing that's been done for the last 150 years," Rodriguez said.

The refuge started its own study by searching for literature on other refuges similar to Browns Park. The study will focus on specific species and their habitat needs. Rodriguez estimates it will take two to three years to complete. After that, the refuge once again will look at the public use plan.

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

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