Northwest Colorado officials want voice in Interior Department’s review of sage grouse plan |

Northwest Colorado officials want voice in Interior Department’s review of sage grouse plan

Sage grouse dot the landscape on a lek southeast of Maybell this April in Moffat County. A 2015 plan implementing new protections for sage grouse on public lands is now under review by the U.S. Department of the Interior per a secretarial order signed Wednesday.
Lauren Blair

Northwest Colorado’s unwitting “sage chickens” keep making headlines, this time thanks to a federal review of the sweeping 2015 Bureau of Land Management plans that were designed to keep them off the endangered species list.

The U.S. Department of Interior announcement came this week when Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order that seeks to enhance state federal-state cooperation in management of greater sage grouse and reevaluate the BLM plan’s impact on local economies and energy development.

“While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor,” Zinke said in a statement.

The move has been met with mixed reviews by stakeholders, though Moffat County has protested these “onerous regulations” on multiple occasions, most recently through a four-county lawsuit filed last month and led by Garfield County.

“Obviously this sage grouse thing is a big deal,” said Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck. “Our state has done a good job in sage grouse planning, but we’re the ones dealing with this day-to-day process, the boots on ground, and we need to be involved in this process.”

Beck expressed disappointment that Zinke didn’t emphasize working with local governments as much as it did the 11 Western states that sage grouse call home.

Beck and Moffat County Natural Resources Director Jeff Comstock met with Zinke only three weeks prior during a visit to Washington, D.C., with Club 20, a Western Slope advocacy organization.

“Out of Secretary (Zinke’s) office and the White House, we heard similar themes of ‘sage grouse are thriving in different areas of the country, and there’s no need to let those thriving populations hamper the economy,’ ” Comstock relayed at the May 30 commissioners meeting.

Zinke also indicated to local officials in May he intended to shift the approach from managing for habitat to managing for population, which is also indicated in this week’s order.

“We were assured this sage grouse plan would be focused on population much more than habitat,” Beck said at the May 30 meeting.

That matters in Moffat County, where 2016 population numbers were the highest they’ve been since wildlife biologists began counting them. Moffat County officials have recently expressed dismay that they should face such stringent regulations even though sage grouse appear to be thriving in the area.

But many, including Luke Schafer, West Slope Advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, are deeply concerned that focusing on population instead of habitat could lead to greater uncertainty in the future.

“The population runs in cycles,” Schafer said, referring to natural ups and downs that seem to occur in sage grouse populations every eight to 10 years.

“When it comes to population, there’s an inordinate number of variables at play beside natural population cycles. You have weather, disease, all these things largely beyond people’s control,” he said. “Habitat is a huge mitigation measure against those other variables.”

The order also seeks to identify pieces of the plan that may need to be modified “in order to give appropriate weight to the value of energy and other development of public lands,” according to the order, and to be consistent with President Donald Trump’s executive order in March prioritizing energy independence.

At the end of the day, Schafer and others are concerned that tampering too much with the plan could re-open the door to the possibility of listing under the Endangered Species Act, something virtually no one wants.

“The big thing is that we’re willing to look at things, but we want to make sure that we don’t do anything that would pull us back into another listing determination,” said John Swartout, senior advisor to Governor John Hickenlooper and sage grouse point person, who’s cautiously waiting to learn more about what the review will entail.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife has scheduled its own review of the species for 2020, five years after the BLM plan headed off the need for a listing.

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 and follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.

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