Routt County Commissioners approve new oil well permit despite concerns that grouse are reaching tipping point

Northwest Colorado’s native grouse

The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse once occupied 20 counties in Colorado. The native bird now is found in only three: Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco. Routt County provides some of the best habitat available for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.

— The Routt County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a permit for a new oil well planned for Bureau of Land Management land in far northern Routt County, but all three members expressed reservations about the impacts Entek’s new well could have on threatened sage grouse and the enviro-political fallout that could ensue.

Commissioner Tim Corrigan particularly was outspoken, saying he wanted to vote against the permit but that he lacked the authority needed to oppose a permit on public land on those grounds.

“I think it’s really bad business that it needs to be done at the cost of driving sage grouse into extinction,” Corrigan said just before voting to approve Entek Energy’s special-use permit, and he added that owners of private property would come to regret that the federal BLM has moved as aggressively as it has to permit oil wells in some of the best remaining habitat for the grouse.

Entek’s new well would be drilled in the Little Snake River Valley close to the Stull and Three Forks ranches, the owners of which have retained legal counsel to resist some of the energy exploration in the area. Entek would use Moffat County roads to access the new well pad, according to Routt County officials.

Entek’s application previously was tabled to allow the commissioners time to further study it and consider its limited jurisdiction over wells proposed on federal land. The county does not have jurisdiction over Entek’s activities at the well pad but does where energy exploration poses impacts to neighboring private lands and public roads. For that reason, they thought they had limited, if any, influence regarding wildlife issues associated with the well pad.

Corrigan said he understands and supports the need to develop oil and gas for the benefit of the county’s residents and private landowners, but he also predicted that the sage grouse formally would be listed as an endangered species when its status is considered in two years. He said that would result in more restrictions on private and public land policies.

The birds rely heavily on specific habitat and established mating grounds known as leks for propagation of the species. There is a large concentration of active leks in the area near West Gibraltar Peak.

“I think private property owners will regret that the feds have moved as quickly as they have,” Corrigan said. “I think when the sage grouse is protected in 2015, we will all look back and think, ‘Why didn’t we make more of an effort to protect the sage grouse?’"

Much of Tuesday’s hearing was spent reviewing conditions of approval the county previously has applied to oil well permits on private land and deciding which ones to apply to Entek’s new well and which to reject.

Corrigan looked at one proposed condition of approval that would have required Entek to take steps to discourage raptors from perching on towers, poles and tanks at the well pad that the birds of prey might use to target grouse. He said it spoke directly to the wildlife issues at the Entek drilling site, but he and his fellow commissioners agreed to remove the condition from their permit approval.

“As unhappy as I may be with the BLM’s conditions (of approval) and as inadequate as I think they are, I’m persuaded that we really don’t have regulatory authority to the extent that we can consider this (condition of approval) in our purview as an off-site impact,” Corrigan said.

Doug Monger and Steve Ivancie agreed, adding that the county’s ability to enforce such conditions is in doubt.

One condition they added to the permit approval would ensure that Assessor Gary Peterson and members of his staff would have access to the well site near the time of drilling and again after completion of the well to document the taxable private property in use on the site.

Amy Williams, speaking for Routt County Citizens for Private Property Rights, dismissed the sage grouse issue.

“We have thoroughly looked at this,” Williams said. “We can all recognize sage grouse is a smoke screen. It’s being dealt with the way Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the BLM want it to be dealt with. They know this bird can change the West. If they didn’t like (Entek’s proposal), they would have dealt with it already.”

But Ivancie and Monger agreed with Corrigan.

“Tim, you said it very well,” Ivancie said. “We need to send a very clear message to CPW and BLM that they need to do their job.”

Monger predicted the county would encounter more grouse-related issues in the future.

“The grouse is not a smoke screen,” Monger said. “It’s a wildland fire going around. The whole intent is to keep it off the (endangered species) list in 2015.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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