Dove Creek – Residents of Dolores County showed up in force during an Aug. 7 meeting with federal land managers to resist listing the beleaguered Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
In this case, the BLM has their back.
A range-wide amendment to land plans benefiting the grouse is being drafted, and is required for 11 of the BLM districts in southeast Utah and southwest Colorado that have potential habitat.
“We’re not the Fish and Wildlife service,” Leigh Espy, a BLM manager, told a crowd of 60 citizens. “Listing is not our call. But 42 percent of (grouse) habitat falls on BLM, so we’re working to give them a reason not to list by showing we have adequate protection measures in place.”
Public comment for an EIS being conducted on the proposed BLM amendment goes until Aug. 22. What the additional conservation measures will be is not determined. But EIS documents point to reducing the threat of habitat fragmentation from roads and development, and also from predation.
Espy said the changes would not affect management of private land, but there was mistrust from the audience on that point. Property owners neighboring BLM could be indirectly affected by new land management practices.
Better control of predators, like coyotes, that prey on grouse is needed, said Dolores County Commissioner Ernie Williams.
“Colorado Parks and Wildlife needs to be pressured by the BLM to look at the predator problem and take more action on it,” he said.
Energy development is blanketed by critical habitat, said an industry representative, a concern for the local economy.
New leases for oil and gas development will be subject to the new regulations, Espy said, and will be applied through the permit process.
“What scares me is that critical habitat overlays private land,” said farmer Phyllis Crowley. “If there is a federal nexus like crop insurance or a federal program, then the fear is they could tell us what to do. There is a lack of trust.”
Added John Humphrey, “Were the second poorest county in the state, we don’t need more stumbling blocks to our industrial and agricultural economy. Why threaten a way of life that impacts thousands of residents?”
Espy explained the approach to species protection takes the long view.
“The philosophy is that every species has value, and protecting habitat of one benefits a diversity of wildlife,” she said.
Jim Fisher, a local farmer, implied legal challenges for threatening the traditional agricultural way of life.
“If it comes down to not being able to graze on public or private lands to make a living because of a listing, that would property taking, illegal,” he said.
Larry Byrnes agreed, noting that “ranchers are becoming the endangered species. When do we get some attention?”
Dolores County is heavily farmed and includes substantial oil-and-gas development, limiting ideal sage-grouse habitat. Gunnison sage grouse require large expanses of sagebrush for cover and food as well as healthy wetland and riparian ecosystems. About 4,621 sage grouse occur among seven separate populations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. The largest population — 4,000 — inhabits the Gunnison Basin, north of Dolores County.
“Our area is more contiguous habitat and has less oil-and-gas,” explained Russ Japuntich, a BLM biologist with the Gunnison District.
According the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the six smaller populations centered on Monticello, Utah, and Dove Creek are in decline, numbering in the hundreds. A decision on whether to give the bird protections under the Endangered Species Act is expected in November.
Details about how to comment on the amendment and conservation measures are at http://on.doi.gov/1kMBxLW