Counties plan suit over bird protection

Management of sage grouse focus of dispute

Four northwestern Colorado counties plan to sue the federal government over its plan for protecting greater sage-grouse in the state.

Garfield County commissioners on Monday unanimously agreed to lead the litigation effort, which also will involve Rio Blanco, Moffat and Jackson counties. It follows a recently reached agreement under which the federal government will pay Garfield County $25,000 for legal fees it incurred in filing a lawsuit to get the government to comply with its obligation to provide information under the Freedom of Information Act related to decisions made about the bird.

The BLM amended resource management plans in Colorado and other states in 2015 to better protect the greater sage-grouse, in the process convincing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the species off the federal endangered species list. Local counties worry about the impacts on human activities that the protections will have where the bird is found in Colorado, in the northwest part of the state.

Garfield County is particularly concerned because of the potential for hindering oil and gas development. County commissioners fear that more than $200 million in potential tax revenues for the county are at risk.

County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky noted Monday that the county has had its own peer-reviewed research done, and concluded that the county is home to about 74,000 acres of priority habitat for the bird, about a third the amount the BLM says is the case in the maps it is relying on.

He said the county met with the BLM and provided comments, “and yet they were not heard.”

The county then used the Freedom of Information Act to try to determine how the BLM’s final decision and environmental impact statement could contain such radical changes from what had earlier been proposed, and the county found some disturbing procedural issues, Jankovsky said.

Last summer, Kent Holsinger, who represented the county in the matter, said the records obtained showed numerous meetings and interactions between the Interior Department and conservation groups at the time those changes were made. An Interior Department spokesperson responded at the time that its sage-grouse plans in western states protect habitat while providing for sustainable development, follow the best available science, and were developed collaboratively with state and local partners, including counties.

Jankovsky said Monday, “I think the only way for us to open this back up in front of the new administration is for us to move forward with a lawsuit.”

He said he expects it to be filed this week.

“I just think this is the only way we’re going to get resolution. We don’t seem to be heard as local governments,” he said.

The counties are retaining Holsinger to represent them in the litigation. The other counties have agreed to pay $5,000 apiece, and Garfield County has agreed to allocate $100,000 because of the amount of oil and gas development in the county that potentially is at stake.

Garfield Commissioner John Martin noted Monday that the sage-grouse plan also has become an issue in a BLM proposal to cut by half the amount of grazing it will allow on part of the Roan Plateau outside Rifle. Sage-grouse habitat is a factor behind that proposal, he said.

“It is a huge issue and we need to discuss it,” he said.

Consultants and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are working on revising sage-grouse habitat mapping in northwest Colorado through a project undertaken by Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, thanks to a $380,000 grant from the state Department of Local Affairs. CPW has said the result should be a finer-scale depiction of habitat, and likely will result in mapped habitat shrinking in some areas and growing elsewhere. The BLM has indicated it will look at the findings of that work, given its reliance on CPW’s expertise and wildlife habitat mapping.

Garfield commissioners last week approved the settlement under which Interior, the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will pay the county the $25,000 in connection with the FOIA lawsuit. The federal government eventually released the documents at issue in the suit, but the case had remained open because the county wanted to recover its attorney fees.


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