Sage grouse numbers up in Northwest Colorado | CraigDailyPress.com

Sage grouse numbers up in Northwest Colorado

A greater sage grouse takes flight in the early morning at a lek in Moffat County. The bird's Northwest Colorado population increased 30 percent from 2013 to 2014, reflecting well on efforts from private landowners and local and state agencies to protect the birds.

— Efforts to protect the greater sage grouse in its 11-state territory are multiplying, according to a report from the Western Governors' Association released Thursday, and Northwest Colorado's sage grouse population is seeing significant growth as a result.

The report is a comprehensive inventory of public and private conservation initiatives in 2014 throughout the bird's range in 11 western states, including Colorado.

Northwest Colorado is home to about two thirds of the state's greater sage grouse population, which grew by 30 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to Senior Wildlife Biologist Brad Petch with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Additionally, "We are seeing what appears to be, at this early stage, an increase in the number of males (this year) over 2014," Petch said.

Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco county landowners have been working towards better conservation of the bird for more than 20 years in partnership with state and local government agencies.

"Probably about 80 percent of sage grouse habitat is on private landowners' land," Moffat County Commissioner Chuck Grobe said. "So without private partnerships, we wouldn't have this program going at all. We're proving that we need to work with them."

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The greater sage grouse was deemed worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2010 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but was left off the list due to limited resources and other higher-priority species. Due to a lawsuit, Fish and Wildlife must decide whether the bird should be listed by Sept. 30.

The Western Governors Association, which represents the governors of 19 states, asserts that voluntary conservation efforts will do more to preserve the bird and its habitat than a listing under the ESA, according to the report.

"The (report) makes the case that the success of voluntary conservation initiatives for sage-grouse provides compelling evidence that a listing of the bird as threatened or endangered under ESA is counterproductive and unnecessary," the report said.

Among Colorado's contributions to sage grouse preservation highlighted in the report are:

• Conservation plans, including a statewide plan created in 2008 and updated in 2014, the Parachute-Piceance-Roan Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan, and county-wide conservation plans developed by Garfield and Jackson counties;

• Purchase and conservation easements resulting in more than 80,600 acres of habitat protected by CPW since 2003 — at a cost of approximately $52.8 million — and nearly 125,000 acres of private land permanently protected by land trusts as of March 2014;

• $9.2 million spent by CPW on annual operations in support of the greater sage grouse

• Evaluation of land-use applications in Routt County for habitat impacts, with regulations calling for "mitigation or avoidance of impacts to critical wildlife areas," the report said, and $20 million raised through a voter-approved mill levy to help protect more than 40,000 acres of land;

• Scientific research managed by CPW to develop Colorado-specific data on sage grouse behavior, demographics, habitat structure guidelines and more detailed information about habitat use.

"Our biologists are out working on private land, counting birds, cataloguing efforts to restore habitat, informed by science so we can make better decisions to protect the birds," said John Swartout, Gov. John Hickenlooper's sage grouse senior advisor.

Colorado is also currently developing a new habitat exchange program, Swartout said, which would allow companies —such as oil and gas — operating on sage grouse habitat to purchase credits from landowners who have put conservation measures in place.

"This is a new tool that ensures it has a net positive effect for the bird," Swartout said.

In Moffat County, other conservation efforts include a conservation easement recently secured by the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust on 16,000 acres of the Cross Mountain Ranch, located near Dinosaur National Monument.

"Even if they list this bird, this is what the (Endangered Species) Act cannot do," Swartout said. "From conservation organizations to ranchers, these partnerships are actually getting stuff done on the ground to preserve and sustain population numbers and to enhance them."

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com.

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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