County, conservationists unhappy with proposed changes to Colorado BLM’s greater sage-grouse plan | CraigDailyPress.com

County, conservationists unhappy with proposed changes to Colorado BLM’s greater sage-grouse plan

Greater sage grouse participate in mating activities on a lek in Moffat County.

CRAIG — They might not agree on much, but it appears that Moffat County officials and conservationists are both discontented by the Bureau of Land Management's proposed changes to federal management plans for Colorado's greater sage-grouse.

The draft document would open an additional 224,200 acres of Colorado land to oil and gas leasing by changing regulations surrounding mineral leases near leks, the areas where the birds mate.

Currently, no new oil and gas wells are allowed to lease within a mile of an active lek. The changes would allow oil and gas companies to lease minerals with a no surface occupancy restriction, meaning there could not be buildings or wells on the site of the lek.

Companies could receive an exception to this restriction based on the topography; impacts from infrastructure, such as highways, or if leasing on federal ground would offset greater impacts on adjacent properties.

Conservationists are concerned about the impact this might have on leks and the population as a whole. Moffat County officials are worried it unnecessarily curbs oil and gas development in an area where grouse populations have been on the uptick.

"People need the economic development; then you have people whose primary focus is protection of the bird," said John Swartout, a senior advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper and the governor's point person for grouse issues in the state. "I think we've hit the balance. People wanted more on one side, and they wanted more on the other, but I think we've struck a good, positive, balance here that works. No one is going to really love it, but that means that we're doing our job."

Recommended Stories For You

While the birds have declined across their range, the population in Moffat County experienced it's highest counts ever in 2016. In the years since, the number of birds has decreased, but population fluctuations are within a normal range, said Kathy Griffin, Colorado Parks and Wildlife's statewide grouse coordinator. In this area, the greatest threat to sage-grouse populations are habitat loss and degradation, she added.

When the BLM released its initial sage-grouse management plan in 2015, state and local governments gathered input for years before submitting their suggestions for the plan to the federal government. These agencies were caught by surprise by last-minute changes the federal government made to the plan before it was released.

In May 2017, Moffat County, along with Rio Blanco, Garfield and Jackson counties, sued the Department of the Interior, alleging the BLM violated federal regulatory procedures and didn’t sufficiently include input from the counties and other local partners. It also suggested that the Washington, D.C. BLM office overrode the work between local BLM offices and local governments. In June, the Trump administration ordered a review of the 2015 plan. The lawsuit was stayed as amendments to the plan were developed.

"We basically went back to the plan that we had, that we developed in Colorado with the BLM," Swartout said. He added that the original plan "accounted for very site-specific factors in Colorado." This includes the possibility of exceptions accounting for the state's hilly terrain — a lek might not be impacted by a nearby gas well if a rocky cliff separates the birds from the well.

Swartout also said the plan gives managers flexibility in making decisions to develop areas that will have a lesser impact on sage-grouse. The state has also requested that the federal government defer to state mitigation plans, such as the Colorado Habitat Exchange.

"One of the reasons they didn't list this bird is because of the stellar stepping up that the ranching community did in the Northwest part of the state," Swartout said. "I mean, they've done more than anyone, and so we want to lock that in and make that part of the culture going forward, because without them, this bird would've got listed."

Now, environmental organizations and the county have expressed concern about how quickly draft changes to the plan were developed. It took nearly five years to develop the 2015 plan. Proposed amendments to the plan were released about seven months after the intent to review the plan was announced.

"The process of putting together the original plans took years of hard work by people from conservation groups, the energy industry and the counties. A huge amount of public input was solicited," said Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist for Rocky Mountain Wild, a wildlife advocacy organization. "These plans are pretty complicated, and they last for a long time, so they're really important to do well. I think this process is pretty rushed. I think we had a good plan, and now, we have a very rushed process to change it, and I am very skeptical that that's going to result in a better plan in the end."

Mueller is concerned the possibility of exceptions to the no surface occupancy restriction leaves too much uncertainty in how protections are applied. Mueller said development within a mile of leks could have impacts on the populations of sage-grouse if the birds abandon the leks.

"It's not like there are other places for them to go on the landscape, so it has consequences for the whole population," Mueller said. "Conservationists would like those areas around leks that are protected to be a lot bigger than a mile, but I think there's good potential for those buffers, if they are really enforced, still."

Following the county's only cooperating agency meeting with state and federal agencies, county officials submitted a letter containing their primary concerns, Moffat County Natural Resource Director Jeff Comstock said. The county's concerns with the draft plan include the following.

• Unleased oil and gas — County officials believe the No Surface Occupancy regulation will have a negative impact on the oil and gas industry in Moffat County. These regulations do not apply to wells already in the ground, Comstock said, but because much of Moffat County's oil and gas is not leased, he added, these restrictions could prevent companies from drilling in Moffat County, especially smaller oil and gas companies which might not have the expertise or capital required to navigate the additional restrictions.

• No Surface Occupancy — This rule would apply to an area of one to four miles around a lek, though companies could receive exceptions. Many of these leks overlap each other, especially in eastern Moffat County. This overlap means that, without exceptions, the rules would blot out "hundreds of thousands of acres" in the county, according to the letter. They are also concerned the stipulation could be broadened to impact other uses, such as agriculture and recreation.

• Private property — County officials are also concerned that stipulations outlined in the plan would apply to private land that sits atop federally owned minerals, called a split-estate. The county requested the BLM modify language in the plans so these rules would not be applied to private landowners.

"Our priority is to assure the success of that bird, and we feel that there are decades of evidence of that success," Comstock said. "We're not out to let money or energy push that population away. We believe that exists under the conditions that we've demonstrated for several years. Those populations are stable and thriving in Moffat County with the existing uses. There's no reason to cut out any of the multiple uses, not just oil and gas. Multiple uses on federal land have been coexisting with grouse numbers for all these years. … This is additional restriction that doesn't benefit beyond what we've been doing already."

The BLM is accepting comments on the entire draft environmental impact statement, as well as the specific planning issues, the cumulative effects analysis and Priority Habitat Management Area decisions through Aug. 2.  The most useful comments are specific and contain new information related to the proposed actions.  Comments may be submitted by mail to BLM – Greater Sage-Grouse EIS, 2815 H Road, Grand Junction, CO 81506; or online at https://goo.gl/kmltwt.

The BLM also plans to hold public meetings during the public comment period. The BLM expects to publish a final EIS and plan amendments by October.

Contact Eleanor Hasenbeck at 970-875-1795 or ehasenbeck@CraigDailyPress.com. Follow her on Twitter, @elHasenbeck.