Moffat County gains trump card in Greater sage grouse debate | CraigDailyPress.com

Moffat County gains trump card in Greater sage grouse debate

Janelle O'Dea

Famed Colorado photographer John Fielder took this photo of Cross Mountain in Moffat County.

Moffat County gained another card to play in the Greater sage grouse game last month when the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust secured a conservation easement on part of the Cross Mountain ranch located near Dinosaur National Monument.

The Greater sage grouse currently is being evaluated for a listing under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — and many groups are trying to prevent such a listing by executing local conservation efforts to protect the bird.

Executive Director of Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust Chris West said the trust paid $5.6 million to the owners of the ranch, the Boeddeker family.

Negotiations and grant writing had been in the making for about three years before the trust sealed the deal with the ranch owners in December.

About 60 percent of the funds were public, derived from grant programs through Colorado Parks and Wildlife funded by lottery sales and money allocated from the federal Farm Bill through the National Resources Conservation Services' Sage Grouse Initiative.

The other 40 percent came from private donors, including funds collected by the Cattleman’s Association.

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In the easement document, reasons for conserving the land include a desire to preserve Moffat County's infamous wide-open spaces. More importantly, it preserves thousands of acres of dense Greater sage grouse habitat.

Tim Griffiths, national coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Services' Sage Grouse Initiative, said this particular parcel should be able to help conserve about 5,000 Greater sage grouse birds.

He also said the biggest threat to the Greater sage grouse species is fragmentation and conserving this piece of land creates a quarter-million acre checkerboard of public and private conserved land woven together.

"We just removed the threat of fragmentation in the one place in Colorado that has more birds than anywhere else in the state," Griffiths said.

He said 350 other species rely on sagebrush habitat, and this particular parcel has the largest elk population in Colorado.

According to the easement, other species protected by conserving the land include American elk, antelope, black bear, black-footed ferret, big horn sheep, bald eagle, mountain lion and mule deer.

The ranch is situated west of Craig and east of Dinosaur National Monument and spans nearly 60,000 acres. About 16,000 acres are conserved in the easement.

The owners of the Cross Mountain Ranch Craig office are listed as Rio Ro Mo Land Company LLC with a contact address for the Roberta F. Culverwell Living Trust in Fruita. The LLC rents the office to the owners of the Cross Mountain Ranch.

Erik Glenn, deputy director for the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust said a portion of the 16,000 acres would be restricted from late-season elk hunting.

The landowners donated public hunting access on several thousand acres of the conserved portion of the ranch for six late season elk tags. The public access agreement was donated by the family to Colorado Parks and Wildlife who will administer the disbursement of hunting licenses in the area.

The restricted number of hunters allowed on the easement property is of concern to Moffat County Commissioner Chuck Grobe. He said it doesn't make much sense to partially fund the easement with public monies and then restrict public access.

Grobe said the county has lost revenue to conservation easements in the past. He was relieved when he found out that West said all of the land in the easement will remain on the agricultural zoning tax rolls and the amount the county receives in taxes will not change.

But Grobe is still concerned because of oil and gas development prohibition contained in the easement.

"The property owner should be able to do what he wants with the land," Grobe said. "But we would like to be more involved in the discussion and have some more input."

While the conservation easement restricts oil and gas development on the conserved land, it does not prohibit it. The restrictions mutually were agreed upon by the landowner, the land trust, and the various funding partners, according to the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust.

West said the benefit for Moffat County is two-fold because it protects sage grouse habitat and agricultural land, an important part of Moffat County's economy.

The Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust now has the responsibility of annual monitoring of the property to assure conservation practices are upheld. All land trusts in Colorado with easements are certified by the state. West also said the Land Trust Alliance, a national organization, keeps track of their oversight and records.

"We do have people looking over our shoulders and making sure this will be upheld," West said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper's Greater sage grouse point person is happy to hear about robust local conservation efforts such as the Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust easement.

"It's certainly been an initiative of ours to look for properties that have significant sage grouse habitat and encourage land owners that are willing to consider preserving those properties," Swartout said.

He also said the federal investment has given the state and local authorities a leg up in the Greater sage grouse debate.

"What we'd like to tell Bennet and Tipton and others in D.C. is we match every federal dollar for conservation in the state," Swartout said. "It's not just a federal dollar that goes out and into a black hole; it's a federal dollar that attracts funding from private and state resources."

Contact Janelle O’Dea at 970-875-1795 or jodea@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @jayohday.

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

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