Moffat County hopes for changes to BLM sage grouse plan

Lauren Blair
Northwest Colorado is home to more than 70 percent of the state's greater sage grouse officials, and Moffat County officials are worried that proposed Bureau of Land Management protections for the bird could come at a major cost to the region's natural resources development and agriculture industries. BLM is expected to release and record the final plan next month.
Lauren Blair

— The proposed Bureau of Land Management greater sage grouse plan — which will affect about 1,167,000 acres of federal surface land in Moffat County and 31,700 acres in Routt County — is nearing completion, and Moffat County Commissioners are hoping the final recorded plan will reflect some of the changes they requested.

Northwest Colorado, including Moffat and western Routt counties and parts of Rio Blanco County, is home to more than 70 percent of the sage grouse population in the state, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2015 count data.

Moffat County Commissioners sent a 17-page protest letter, dated June 29, detailing their problems with the proposed BLM and U.S. Forest Service Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse Final Environmental Impact Statement, released May 28.

“We feel like they’re not listening to us at all,” Moffat County Commissioner Chuck Grobe said. “They’ve (local BLM officials) told us that (they’re) being directed by Washington, so there’s no collaboration in it, very little that we see at all.”

Moffat County’s was one of 25 protests received by the BLM for the Northwest Colorado plan, which affects federal land management in 10 counties. Local, state and national BLM officials are now busy sifting through the protests, submitted also by Rio Blanco, Garfield and Mesa counties as well as energy companies and agriculture and environmental organizations.

Moffat County’s protests are based largely on assertions that the BLM does not comply with federal law in several aspects of the plan, and that it is not based on the best available science. Commissioners contended that misplaced or misinformed regulations would threaten two of Moffat County’s primary industries: natural resources development and agriculture.

Specific regulations of concern include a rule that would eliminate new mineral leasing within one mile of active sage grouse leks in Priority Habitat Management Areas. Not only would surface disturbance be prohibited, but the minerals underneath would be off-limits, despite horizontal drilling technology that could allow those minerals to be accessed from more than a mile away.

“It sterilizes massive swaths of public land in Moffat County to multiple use and natural resource development,” adding up to more than 1 million acres, according to the protest letter. “… these ‘no-leasing’ areas made little sense when the leks above the no-leasing areas would not be impacted by horizontal or directional drilling.”

Moffat County commissioners speculate that the costs to Moffat County’s economy could be in the billions due to lost sales tax revenue from natural gas development, significantly more than BLM’s estimated decreased economic output of $240 million to $584 million, according to the protest letter.

“Put simply, under the LUPA, one sage-grouse, of the estimated 7,000 birds in Moffat County would ‘cost’ approximately $41,400,000,” the letter said.

The challenge for BLM is how to find the balance between concerns such as Moffat County’s and providing regulatory certainty sufficient to lead U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to a “not warranted” decision this September.

BLM’s greater sage grouse plan was designed, in part, to create that certainty in order to allay the need for an endangered or threatened species listing by Fish and Wildlife, who will decide the status of the bird by Sept. 30. Regardless of the status decision, however, the agency cannot proceed with listing the bird due to funding constraints from Congress.

“(BLM’s) goal is to try and hit this sweet spot where they’re addressing some of those local concerns but where they’re having some degree of regulatory consistency across however many plans across all 11 states in order to satisfy the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Luke Schafer, West Slope Advocacy Director for Conservation Colorado. “I think it strikes the balance we need.”

The BLM is currently working to address or resolve the protests, and expects to release the plan in late summer or early fall, according to Public Affairs Specialist David Boyd.

In order to have the desired impact of providing a regulatory framework for sage grouse conservation before Fish and Wildlife’s Sept. 30 status decision, however, the plan will need to be completed and recorded next month.

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.

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