Common ground on bird found 
in economic promise of tours

CRAIG — Thursday was about the third time in a week that participants in a dawn-hour local greater sage-grouse tour gathered afterward for a late breakfast at Village Inn.

Each visit entailed about 15 to 20 people patronizing the place, said restaurant general manager Megan Nelson.

“It helps with our mornings because our mornings are usually slow,” she said.

The restaurant offers a 10 percent discount to tour participants, and the extra business has helped it avoid cutting staff during what can be a slow time of year, she said.

“We would love to see it continue,” she said of the annual tours, organized by Conservation Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other entities.

Although how to manage greater sage-grouse has sparked considerable debate within Craig, not to mention across northwest Colorado and in many western states, there’s little dispute within the town about the benefit the tours bring.

“I would say it does help tourism. This is kind of a slower time for the hotel business so this is welcome business,” said Frank Moe, who with his wife owns and manages the Best Western Plus Deer Park Inn & Suites.

His inn also offers a tour-related discount, has been actively marketing toward tour participants, and has gotten a good portion of that business as a result, Moe said.

The tours have been offered for several years now, and for the last two years the Moffat County Tourism Association has gotten involved. Tour participants are encouraged to stop by the association office to look at its displays, ask questions and pick up a packet with information on other things to do in the region. The packet also includes a Craig Chamber of Commerce card offering discounts at area lodges, restaurants and other businesses.

“For us it was an opportunity to … showcase what we have in the county,” said tourism association director Melody Villard.

She said tour participants have ranged from a lot of older, empty-nesters to photographers. She’s directed them to everything from local museums, to the rock art site in Irish Canyon and the wild horses of Sand Wash Basin.

“Several of them are staying for more than one day,” and some are talking about returning to see other attractions in the area, she said.

Mary Sandmann came from Lafayette for the sage-grouse tour, and noted that it’s all but necessary to stay in local lodging due to the need to gather for the tour in the predawn hours.

Once in Craig, “you find all sorts of things to do and you want to stay another day,” said Sandmann, who was leaning toward heading out to see the wild horses as part of her visit.

Luke Schafer, a staffer at Conservation Colorado’s Craig office, said he didn’t think anyone would be interested when organizers started offering the tours. This year the tours, which are limited to 14 people a day, have sold out almost every day and brought well over 200 people to Craig.

“We’re bringing in a fair amount of people over the course of two weeks,” Schafer said.

Conservation Colorado’s goal with the program has been educational, as well as to demonstrate the watchable-wildlife value of greater sage-grouse.

“Our idea here is a little economic case study of what the potential is,” he said.

Conservation Colorado has worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Watchable Wildlife program, which provides the sage-grouse viewing trailer that lets people observe the birds from a sheltered place without disturbing them.

Schafer said Parks and Wildlife “has done a great job” of highlighting where wildlife viewing opportunities lie.

He said the agency uses the same trailer for sage-grouse viewing in North Park. Such tours dovetail, as it were, with what’s called the Colorado Birding Trail, featured in a guide published by CPW and numerous other entities and highlighting avian viewing opportunities in northwest Colorado.

For Conservation Colorado, the sage-grouse tours are a break-even proposition at best, a work-intensive undertaking that piles on top of staffers’ normal duties, and something Schafer said they don’t want to be handling forever. He’s interested to see if others step up to eventually take over the tours.

That presumably would fall to Craig’s business community, made up of people who in many cases view sage-grouse and other environmental issues far differently from groups like Conservation Colorado.

Moe, the hotel owner, also is a Republican candidate for Moffat County commissioner. In 2012 he helped bring presidential candidate Mitt Romney to Craig, partly to speak to concerns by Moe and others about regulatory actions affecting the mining and burning of coal — activities that both occur locally.

The sage-grouse issue has centered around the potential of the bird being listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and on a Bureau of Land Management proposal aimed at preventing such a listing but also restricting oil and gas development, ranching and other activities.

The BLM’s proposal arises in part from concerns by biologists, conservationists such as Schafer and others about potential impacts of human activities on nesting areas that typically are found within about four miles of mating grounds, or leks.

Moe said if the sage-grouse is listed, the economic repercussions in the region could put a lot of people out of business, including him. He said the answer has to be something that protects not just the environment and sage-grouse, but people, the energy industry and the economy.

“People just need to work together and cooperate. … It’s going to take everybody realizing, especially in this area, that we’re all in this together,” he said.

Moe said it can’t be all about the sage-grouse, and he worries about outside groups getting involved who don’t understand the local aspects of such issues. He cited the recent visit of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to a Craig-area ranch being managed to help protect sage-grouse, and said efforts need to be made in connection with sage-grouse tours to let people know what ranchers, the energy industry and others are doing to help the bird.

Tourism director Villard also is a sheep rancher who believes sage-grouse do just fine in the sheep habitat she works to properly manage. Like Moe, she believes that the role of predators needs to get more attention in the discussion about sage-grouse. She also believes there’s room for oil and gas development to occur, but says too dense a concentration of well pads would prove detrimental.

“I think it all just needs to be balanced,” she said of the eventual approach to sage-grouse management.

Schafer said his group doesn’t want to see the sage-grouse listed for protection either. He said while there are differences of opinion on how to protect the bird, there’s a lot of common ground on the matter as well.

“No one wants the sage-grouse to disappear. … No one wants to lose what we’ve got here,” he said.

The appreciation for what Craig has is shared by Marilyn Fineran, a former school bus driver from Craig who joined in a tour on Thursday. She said she didn’t know what to say about the issues surrounding the sage-grouse.

“I was just excited to come see them. I just want to have them around,” she said.


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