Changes to Northwest Colorado BLM sage grouse plan could ease restrictions on drilling, ranching | CraigDailyPress.com

Changes to Northwest Colorado BLM sage grouse plan could ease restrictions on drilling, ranching

Northwest Colorado officials and landowners met with state and federal officials last week to hear about possible changes to the Bureau of Land Management's 2015 sage grouse protections. The proposed changes could ease restrictions on ranchers as well as oil and gas drilling.

Changes are afoot for Northwest Colorado's sage grouse protection plan, prompting state and federal officials to visit Craig last week to review the potential changes with local landowners and officials.

The plan was approved by the Bureau of Land Management in 2015, however the Department of Interior seeks to steer it in a new direction under the Trump administration. A review ordered in June has resulted in the re-examination of 98 BLM land use management plans impacting 11 Western states.

The shift bodes well for the interests of most Northwest Colorado stakeholders, as Interior officials seek to tailor the plans to local needs and ease restrictions on oil and gas development. However, some are wary that making too many changes to the hard-won plan could throw the bird's fate back into uncertainty or lead to a renewed threat of an endangered species listing, something nearly everyone hopes to avoid.

In 2015, "when (Washington) D.C. got involved, they made changes across the range in state plans and it caused quite a bit of controversy. People felt it was a one-size-fits-all," said John Swartout, senior advisor to Governor John Hickenlooper, who attended the Nov. 8 meeting in Craig.

"We've lost things in our plan that were unique to our terrain. Colorado's habitat for sage grouse is different than in Idaho or Nevada," he added.

Colorado and Moffat County officials, landowners and conservationists agree they'd like to see the current review process result in some minor tweaks to tailor the sage grouse plan to Colorado's specific habitat, essentially returning it to the spirit of the state’s original plan before it was altered by federal officials.

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"We're the ones that have the sage grouse and we're the ones that created the habitat… and to have someone 3,000 miles away saying you don't know what you're doing is kind of a hypocrisy," said Moffat County rancher Tom Kourlis.

BLM Sage Grouse Coordinator Bridget Clayton presented several key components of Colorado's sage grouse plan that are up for review:

• Remove the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a decision-maker for changes to regional habitat maps and for waivers to 'no surface occupancy' rules. Decision-making power would remain with BLM and state wildlife officials.

• Instead of prohibiting new oil and gas leasing within one mile of a lek (mating ground), apply existing rules that limit ground disturbance near leks, as "it is feasible for industry to horizontally drill under existing leks with no impact to the lek," according to the BLM presentation.

• Allow for rules designating buffer zones around sage grouse leks to account for the varied topography in Northwest Colorado instead of requiring uniform application

• Clarify that Northwest Colorado's plan does not include height requirements for grasses and vegetation, dubbed "stubble height," in sage grouse habitat, and that grazing permits wouldn't be changed without an analysis determining that livestock grazing is a causal factor for sage grouse decline.

Depending on the scope of the changes, the BLM may be faced with having to complete yet another lengthy, years-long amendment process, something most stakeholders would prefer to avoid.

Moffat County commissioners Frank Moe and Ray Beck attended the meeting, and voiced support of revisions that would allow for a better balance, in their view, of conservation and oil and gas development.

"We've got three commissioners fighting for our economy and fighting for our way of life, and what does that mean? It means recreation, agriculture, and energy development," Beck said, noting that all of the county's biggest economic drivers are inextricably tied to the public lands that make up nearly half of the county's 3 million acres.

Conservation Colorado's West Slope Advocacy Director Luke Schafer is on board with fine-tuning the plan to Colorado's specific needs. He remains optimistic about local stakeholders' collaborative efforts, if not skeptical of the federal administration's end goal.

"The proof is in the pudding," Schafer said. ""Is the goal is to find a conservation plan for sage grouse that everyone can live with, or is the goal to facilitate a plan dictated by D.C. to achieve energy dominance? I sure hope it's not the latter."

Individuals may submit comments, questions or concerns to the BLM at http://bit.ly/GRSGplanning. The public scoping process ends and comments must be received by Nov. 30.

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.