Gunnison listing brings greater worries to Northwest Colorado | CraigDailyPress.com

Gunnison listing brings greater worries to Northwest Colorado

Janelle O'Dea

On Wednesday, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service chose to list the Gunnison sage grouse as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

According to Theo Stein, spokesman for Fish & Wildlife Service:

"Threatened designation generally means that 'take' of the species is prohibited, which includes destroying or significantly altering habitat. In such a case, a review or consultation of a project is often required before it can proceed."

Stein also said anyone with a completed Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances and anyone doing sage-grouse work (or other work) under a Natural Resources Conservation Services program will see no impact.

In addition, he said the Fish & Wildlife Service intends to propose and finalize a 4(d) rule to exempt activities from the listing, such as agriculture and ranching.

The 4(d) rules under the Endangered Species Act allow for exemptions to the listing.

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Because the Fish & Wildlife Service decided, through its decision to list the Gunnison sage grouse, that local efforts are not sufficient for preserving the species, Moffat County officials and residents are concerned that they could use the same logic and the greater sage grouse might be listed next.

Between 2006 and 2012, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spent more than $33 million on conservation efforts for the greater sage grouse.

"It's more than likely the greater sage grouse will be listed as threatened too," said Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid.

But Director of Natural Resources Jeff Comstock said the biology doesn't allow for that jump. It's just the precedent set by the Gunnison sage grouse decision that worries him and the rest of Northwest Colorado the most.

"We’re too early in the phase to know how the fish and wildlife service will react," Comstock said. "It triggers the what-ifs on greater sage grouse, but here’s the thing: they (greater) have a population of about 500,000, and Gunnison are like 4,200."

The difference in population numbers as well as the difference in habitat range size distinguishes the Gunnison sage grouse and greater sage grouse as two different issues.

Ten of Colorado's counties comprise the greater sage grouse habitat, and 75 percent of Moffat County's public land includes greater sage grouse habitat. Roughly 19 percent of Routt County's land is in the greater sage grouse habitat range.

The Gunnison sage grouse only occupy a small part of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.

According to Fish & Wildlife Service, greater sage grouse populations in the 1950s were anywhere between more than 1 million birds to more than 16 million birds. Now, the totals reach only as high as 500,000 birds.

The Fish & Wildlife Service does note that estimating greater sage grouse populations is difficult for a variety of reasons, including the large size of their habitat range.

If the greater sage grouse is listed as threatened, it could mean restrictions on Moffat County land that may prevent companies from exploring the minerals underneath the land.

But Comstock said there are many opportunities for regulations to be written and deals to be cut that could protect the habitat of greater sage grouse and still allow for oil and gas development and exploration.

On the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's "little known but important features of the endangered species act" webpage:

"By listing a Distinct Population Segment, we apply the ESA’s protections only to the deteriorating portion of a species’ range. Threats can then be addressed in that specific (and smaller) area instead of waiting until the entire species has declined to the point that listing the entire species throughout its range is necessary."

All hope is not lost for Northwest Colorado, even if the Fish & Wildlife Service decides to list the bird.

"There is a possibility that you could write in some highly restrictive form of drilling, despite the threatened status," Comstock said.

The greater sage grouse issue reaches far beyond Colorado.

Wyoming, Utah and Montana, along with seven other states, comprise sage grouse habitat as well. John Swartout, appointed by Gov. Hickenlooper to help Colorado figure out a sage grouse conservation strategy, said all states are trying to work together to find a solution before the Fish & Wildlife Service imposes one.

Swartout said a lawsuit is "in motion" against the Gunnison sage grouse decision.

"We’re willing to go to court to show that science says these (local conservation) efforts matter and it’s one of the most important things we can do," Swartout said. "Our science team says it does make a difference."

He also said an abundance of private land owners have stepped up and entered agreements not to build subdivisions or disturb land any further.

Colorado Northwest Community College President and member of Gov. John Hickenlooper's oil and gas task force Russell George said he's proud of the governor's reaction.

"Governor Hickenlooper is on the right track," George said. "Colorado needs to sue (on the Gunnison sage grouse decision)."

The current deadline for the greater sage grouse decision is Sept. 30, 2015.

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, including 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 resources director