Sage grouse numbers have declined slowly in recent years, prompting conservation groups to have the federal government consider the bird for the endangered species list. This week, Gov. John Hickenlooper sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management stating that its proposed plan for the bird was not acceptable.

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Sage grouse numbers have declined slowly in recent years, prompting conservation groups to have the federal government consider the bird for the endangered species list. This week, Gov. John Hickenlooper sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management stating that its proposed plan for the bird was not acceptable.

Gov. John Hickenlooper questions BLM's sage grouse plan

— The sage grouse issue in Colorado took a turn this week after Gov. John Hickenlooper sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management stating that its proposed plan for the bird was not acceptable — a response Moffat County officials applaud.

“What I find really exciting about this letter is when the governor was up here, he actually listened to what we had to say. He thought about it, and people around him came up with this letter,” Moffat County Commissioner Chuck Grobe said.

At a glance

11 states involved in sage grouse issue

Colorado

Wyoming

Utah

North Dakota

South Dakota

Montana

Idaho

Nevada

Oregon

Washington

California

10 Colorado counties affected by sage grouse debate, grouse habitat percentage of county area

Moffat, 75 percent

Jackson, 40 percent

Rio Blanco, 14 percent

Routt, 19 percent

Grand, 21 percent

Garfield, 12 percent

Eagle, 7 percent

Larimer, 1 percent

Mesa, 0.7 percent

Summit, 1.4 percent

Source: Jeff Comstock, Moffat County natural resource director

The letter specifically states that the BLM needs to find a way to look at each sage grouse habitat across the state and veer away from the “one size fits all” method the BLM drafted, especially as it pertains to disturbance caps.

Moffat County has the largest sage grouse population in Colorado, with 75 percent of the county’s land comprising sage grouse habitat, which also makes up 19 percent of the land in Routt County, according to Jeff Comstock, natural resource director for Moffat County.

Sage grouse numbers have declined throughout the years, prompting conservation groups to have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service consider listing the bird as endangered.

The BLM in Colorado and 10 other Western states is evaluating the bird’s habitat to ensure sage grouse continues to multiply so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the federal agency that administers the Endangered Species Act — doesn’t list the bird as endangered.

If the BLM proposes extremely stringent restrictions, it could negatively impact Colorado’s economy, specifically as it pertains to agriculture, mineral rights and natural gas extraction — something the governor recognized in his letter.

“One of the most troubling tools being proposed in the (Preliminary Resource Management Plan for sage grouse) is the use of disturbance caps. This is an untested management approach,” the letter stated.

The BLM was looking to recommend disturbance caps set between 3 and 5 percent, meaning land around sage grouse could not be disturbed beyond that cap.

“It’s our understanding that there is limited scientific evidence that supports either of the two numbers currently in play for anthropogenic disturbance (3 and 5 percent). With that in mind, we urge the BLM to pursue a flexible approach that allows managers to learn as they go. Imposing an arbitrary cap on the landscape could have catastrophic impacts on resource use,” the letter stated.

Essentially, the governor told the BLM to rethink the way it recommends managing sage grouse habitat.

“There’s no scientific background for disturbance caps, and I like the way he said that,” Grobe said.

Many of the commissioners from the 10 Colorado counties affected by the sage grouse issue were concerned disturbance caps would bleed into private property rights, forcing land owners to abide by government regulations.

“I like the fact that they challenge the private property issue” in the letter, Comstock said. The “BLM doesn’t have authority on private property, and the governor called them out on that.”

The letter was addressed to Jim Cagney, district manager of BLM’s northwest district office. Cagney has worked for years to try to develop a plan for the greater sage grouse. He was not available for comment.

The governor became heavily involved after visiting Craig in November, when he met with more than a dozen sage grouse stakeholders from across the state who expressed angst about how the BLM, state officials and the governor’s office were handling the issue.

The governor assigned a point person, John Swartout, to come up with a Colorado alternative plan by researching stakeholders’ concerns and to investigate BLM’s Preliminary Resource Management Plan for sage grouse.

“This letter serves as the Colorado state alternative, and we ask for your consideration as you move forward with developing your plan,” the letter stated. “It is our hope that the management alternative can be developed that both safeguards the economic engine of northwestern Colorado and protects the greater sage grouse sufficiently to preclude a listing.”

The letter also outlines that Colorado has invested more than $40 million on sage grouse conservation efforts since 2000.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife previously determined that sage grouse perhaps should be considered for the endangered species list, yet it precluded the listing because there were more important issues to tackle.

However, in 2011, the Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying it should list sage grouse, and it can’t just defer it to another time.

A settlement occurred, stating that by 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must issue a final decision about whether sage grouse should be listed as an endangered species based on research.

The BLM has to have its recommendation to U.S Fish and Wildlife Service by September, so it asked for comment on its preliminary plan.

Cagney told the Craig Daily Press last month that he had received several thousand comments, and he has had to review them all before the BLM makes its recommendation.

Contact Noelle Leavitt Riley at 970-875-1790 or nriley@CraigDailyPress.com.

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