DOVE CREEK - Residents of this rural, isolated community are feeling on edge. Not about water shortage or commodity prices, although those issues are weighing on their minds too. The biggest stir right now is a bird species which, they feel, is poised to change their way of life and wreak havoc on Dolores County's economy.
The culprit behind all the angst?
The Gunnison sage-grouse, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service now proposing to add it to the Endangered Species List.
Led by the trio of Dolores County commissioners, locals are busy writing letters of protest ahead of the March 12 deadline. They feel the would-be endangered listing is fickle, misguided, and in the eyes of some, a concerted effort to grab control of private land.
"Write from your heart," urged commissioner Julie Kibel at a meeting last Thursday. "You don't need to be a trained scientist to report what you've observed on the land over 30 years."
Wildlife officials have been keeping tabs on the Gunnison sage-grouse for a while, but the issue heated up anew in January when the FWS named it as a candidate for endangered status. At the same time, the agency suggested labeling almost 350,000 acres across Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan (Utah) counties as "critical habitat," though only portions of it are occupied by grouse. Most of the 148,000 acres inside Dolores County are privately owned.
By latest estimates about 4,600 Gunnison sage-grouse remain in the wild. Since 2000, they've been considered a separate species from the more prolific Greater sage-grouse of northern Colorado and other Western states. Almost 90 percent of survivors live in the Gunnison Basin, but six smaller "satellite" groups are hanging on by a thread.
Portions of Montrose, Mesa, Delta, Ouray, Chaffee, Hinsdale and Saguache counties are also affected.
The Monticello-Dove Creek grouping - across all 350,000 acres of critical habitat - is thought to have 150 birds.
The people of Dolores County feel unjustly blamed for the sage-grouse's troubles. They reject the FWS rationale about habitat fragmentation, saying human population and road density in the county have stayed fairly constant for the last 50 years. And the projected future growth rate is negligible.
"We need to hammer home (that) these birds are threatened by drought and predation, not mankind," Kibel said.
Farmers and ranchers are fearful that an endangered listing would dictate what they could do with their land, if it overlaps with the critical habitat.
Widlife officials have tried to quell the outrage, saying agriculture is compatible with the presence of sage-grouse, but the locals aren't convinced.
"If this goes forward we won't be able to use our land without permits," said commissioner Doug Stowe. "That's not right. If you can't use your land, it has no value."
The commissioners also are worried about curtailed oil and gas development, which made up 60 percent of the county's tax revenue in 2012.
Existing wells on critical habitat would be allowed to continue under a "take permit", but new lease proposals would be subject to stricter criteria. Projects that "jeopardize habitat or disrupt breeding cycles would have to pass another layer of analysis", said FWS assistant supervisor Patty Gelatt, and could be rejected if the impact is too large.
Other sources of mineral wealth are also at stake.
A Denver subsidiary of Red Metal Limited, an Australian company, is looking to mine potash (potassium salts used in fertilizer) in the Paradox Basin, including western Dolores County. But Kibel said the company was "cautious" about proceeding with its plans if the endangered listing is approved.
With an unemployment rate of 20 percent, the county is balking at any thought of turning away jobs.
Ultimately, locals are hoping to convince officials that grouse have been decimated by drought and uncurbed predator numbers - coyotes, eagles, hawks, ravens - and not by habitat fragmentation. The endangered species listing would not stop those threats, they say, only intrude on individual lives and inhibit economic development.
Their protests have found sympathy with Colorado politicians.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is requesting that the FWS "conduct more formal meetings with the local communities" and supports a 60-day comment period extension.
"Going forward, Senator Bennet is committed to facilitating a dialogue between all stakeholders with the goal of achieving a consensus-based path forward for (this) species," spokeswoman Kristin Lynch wrote in an email.
U.S. Rep Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, prefers that state-level grouse recovery measures be allowed to continue. He also said "it is critical for the (FWS) to conduct a thorough economic impact analysis as required under the Endangered Species Act and not just check the box with respect to this obligation."
A decision on the listing is slated for September.