The Energy Blend: Remapping greater sage grouse habitat balances development and conservation
Although it avoided an endangered species listing, the greater sage grouse has remained a source of controversy and consternation for Northwest Colorado — especially when it comes to oil and gas development
In the summer of 2015, before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the bird as endangered, the Bureau of Land Management released its management plan for greater sage grouse in Colorado.
The Northwest Colorado Greater Sage Grouse Resource Management Plan includes 10 counties and sets the guidelines for future land development.
Included in the document is a map of the northwest part of the state covered in red splotches delineating priority sage grouse habitat.
Of Moffat County’s approximately three million acres, about 75 percent — 2.27 million acres — is considered grouse habitat by the BLM. Of that land, nearly 1.3 million, or 43 percent of Moffat County, is considered priority habitat.
Considering the map and the regulations that came along with it — no new leasing within one mile of active mating areas in both priority and general habitat and surface occupancy restrictions that would prevent development, including horizontal drilling for resources — many of the counties it affected were concerned it would stifle not stifle not only oil and gas development but all types of land use.
Given the strict restrictions associated with the map and potential negative impacts on the energy sector, the primary concern was its accuracy.
“Quite honestly, there was a need to address this accuracy issue of habitat mapping,” Moffat County Natural Resources Department Director Jeff Comstock said.
Comstock said the existing map put all types of land use at risk.
“All of the uses of federal lands have a sage grouse evaluation component with them,” he said. “BLM doesn’t permit any of these activities without looking at their impacts on sage grouse.”
Fortunately, BLM’s resource management plan has stipulations to take into account new, more accurate information and Moffat County along with the six other counties that make up Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado were able to secure funding for a remapping project.
AGNC Executive Director Bonnie Petersen said the members of AGNC agreed the map was very broad and sought a Department of Local Affairs Grant to “more accurately map habitat in Northwest Colorado.”
“We told DOLA what we wanted to do was have some consultants look at data and identify where the habitat really is and essentially verify that habitat by doing some field verification,” she said.
With funding secured, one of the most important parts of the project was bringing Colorado Parks and Wildlife on board to make the mapping effort official.
CPW Northwest Region Deputy Regional Manager Dean Riggs said CPW traditionally provides information to the BLM and is considered the species expert for the state.
The original map in the management plan was provided by CPW and Riggs said it was admittedly not the most accurate resource.
“It doesn’t get down to exact locations of grouse on the landscape and does include a broad-brush look at where they live in the state of Colorado,” he said.
To ensure scientific accuracy, effective conservation and responsible development of resources, CPW has joined up with the engineering firm hired by AGNC to study grouse habitat in northwest Colorado.
Petersen said the consultant, Olsson Associates, is running data through two different models to see where the data crosses over on both models. If it does overlap, it is likely to be good grouse habitat. If not, on-the-ground verification will be performed.
“Where the data crosses over, then that looks like it is definitely good grouse habitat,” she said. “In the areas that the data does not overlap, then the plan is to go out and do some on-the-ground verification.”
Right now, they are still in the middle of the modeling and hope to conduct field studies next spring and fall.
Riggs said there has been a decent amount of “back and forth” between the consultants and CPW, but the firms is coming around and cooperating.
“I would say Olson is learning a lot about what we think is the right way to do this process,” he said.
Once the process is complete, CPW will supply the new map to the BLM
David Boyd, public affairs specialist for the BLM Northwest Colorado District, said BLM’s adoption of the map into its management plan depends on the level of change.
“Some smaller changes we can incorporate pretty easily,” he said. “If there’s major changes, we would need to do additional analysis and it would take longer.”
The biggest concern over the current map for counties like Moffat is the expansive tracts of land that are listed as priority habitat and how that would affect future development.
“We come in as a county because our economy is affected and our social economic environment is drastically affected by inaccurate data,” Comstock said.
Comstock said with a properly researched map, the county can balance effective conservation with responsible land use.
“We believe we can protect the birds and have use of federal land,” he said.
Riggs said this mapping effort is unique in the fact that several counties came together to secure funding and work with state and federal regulators to reach a solution.
“We’re better off working through these things together than we are apart or being adversarial about them,” he said.
The level of cooperation and collaboration was also unique to Petersen.
“We have county government, we have Parks and Wildlife, we have representation from the governor’s office, we have folks from the Department of Local Affairs who oversee the energy impact funds,” she said. “We’ve got a pretty broad spectrum of supporters in this effort.”
Aside from ensuring scientific accuracy and allowing local economies to grow, the remapping effort also helps keep further federal involvement in the bird’s protection at bay.
“[It] shores up our defense with the Fish and Wildlife Service and shows that we’re taking this stuff serious as humans protecting this species,” he said.
Comstock said additional advantages of remapping are effective conservation and allowing local economies to thrive. He is confident the effort will be a success.
“It would be unimaginable for anybody to look at this and say our effort doesn’t provide new, better information,” he said.
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