Mines and ground birds don't typically mesh well, but an effort is underway to make room for both in Dolores and San Miguel counties.
The timing of RM Potash, a subsidiary of Australian-based Red Metal Limited, to consider a potash mine near Egnar, Colo. was not ideal.
As RM Potash was in the process of applying to the BLM for an exploratory drilling permit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species.
The proposed listing has likely pushed back a decision on whether to allow exploratory drilling in order to study more closely its potential impacts on the threatened bird.
A decision was expected last year for the test drill sites, but the overlap between critical grouse habitat and the drilling area complicates matters, reported Jon Thorson, manager of Colorado Potash Project for Red Metal Ltd.
"There will be timing restrictions for wildlife, and some of the drill holes we want are in the grouse habitat," he said. "But I don't think restrictions are insurmountable.
"We can live with what we've got."
Of the six drill sites, five are in San Miguel County and one in Dolores County. Overlapping the drill site map with the critical habitat map shows drill sites falling very near or within Gunnison sage grouse territory. Roads leading to the drill sites cross critical habitat.
Even without the sage grouse complication, the mine is not a sure thing. Future plans depends on core samples showing potash in the Paradox Formation, 6,000 feet deep.
"Based on oil well core samples done in the past, we feel there is good potential for potash there, but the trick is finding the sweet part," Thorson said.
If mining were approved, operations would still be five or more years in the future.
An Environmental Assessment (EA) on just the exploratory drilling was completed and is being reviewed, said James Blair, project geologist with the BLM. If there is a Finding of No Significant Impact, test drills could commence; if not, additional environmental studies would be required to mitigate identified impacts.
"(If approved) they could drill some holes and find nothing and go away, or if they do find a resource, come back to us and apply for a lease on federal land," he said.
At that point additional environmental studies are done and commented on by the public.
According to the draft EA, the six test drill sites are spread out over 10,000 acres, with five located northeast of Egnar and one southeast of the town near Dolores County Road B. The test holes will have a total of 19 acres of disturbance from well pads and improved roads. Three access roads will be upgraded and widened to accommodate equipment.
Thorson explained that the mine would utilize an in-situ solution process, rather than the more conventional strip mine. Wells would be drilled and pumped with a brine solution, selectively dissolving potash, which would then pumped to the surface. Water for the project would come from deep aquifers of salt water that is not used for another purpose in Southwest Colorado. Much of it would be recycled on site.
Solar evaporative ponds like those at the Cane Creek potash mine south of Moab, Utah, would not be used. Instead, boilers fired by natural gas would separate the potash from the brine, producing a powdery substance that would be trucked to rail lines in Grand Junction.
"A solution mine like we are proposing has a much smaller footprint, and we don't have access to all the water they use from the Colorado River," Thorson said.
Potash, a group of naturally occurring minerals containing the element potassium, is one of three main ingredients in most fertilizers. Potash is also used in televisions and computer monitors, livestock feed, soaps and perfumes. The mineral sells for $400 to $450 per ton. Currently, more than 80 percent of potash in the U.S. is imported.
Officials would welcome the 100-150 well-paying jobs a successful mine could bring to the region, said Dolores County commissioner Ernie Williams, but it is too early in the process to count on the mine.
"We know there is potash out there, just not how much," he said. "As far as the sage grouse being out there, it is a stumbling block, but it is something we can overcome. Mining technology is changing and becoming greener all of the time."
Patty Gelatt, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency is obligated to protect the Gunnison sage grouse if it is listed, but she said mitigation could be arranged so both mining and the bird can exist together.
"If there is a listing (of the sage grouse) and a determination that a BLM project could adversely impact critical habitat, then there is consultation with our office, but it does not mean the project is stopped," Gelatt said. "The only way that might happen is if a project jeopardizes an endangered species and no alternatives can be found, a situation that is extremely rare."
Consultation with the USFW is fairly flexible, but conservation of the struggling species is paramount. The population of the Gunnison sage grouse, a species distinct from the greater sage grouse, has dropped in recent years, and now hovers at an estimated 4,500 birds.
Most of the flock resides in the Gunnison Basin, with around 500 birds hanging on at six satellite locations around Dove Creek and in southeast Utah. The male Gunnison sage grouse is known for its charming dance routine and distinct sounds from air sacs when courting on breeding grounds called leks.
The Endangered Species Act flexibility allows for some compromise on sage grouse habitat, or an individual bird's demise, through a negotiated "incidental take" permit. In exchange for killing a grouse, or disrupting its habitat in some way, a project plan must make up for it by setting aside additional habitat, improving habitat elsewhere, scaling down a project or other mitigation actions.
"I know that there is an impression out there that if a species is listed then all projects stop, but that is not the case," she said.
"If there is a lek, or important habitat ... that a project would disturb, we want to avoid that area and adjust it to a place less valuable to the species."