Economics drive Garfield to map out own approach

For sometime-critics of the oil and gas industry such as Marion Wells of Rulison, there’s no question as to why Garfield County has committed more than $200,000 to doing its own greater sage-grouse mapping and put forth its own management plan for the bird.

“It’s very obvious why it’s happening. It’s because of the money,” she said at a recent county Energy Advisory Board meeting at which county officials discussed their sage-grouse efforts.

County officials likely wouldn’t challenge that notion. The county contends measures the Bureau of Land Management is considering imposing to try to protect the greater sage-grouse could directly impact tens of billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the Piceance Basin and cause the county to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in gas production tax revenue.

County officials have been encouraging local governments and tax entities to get involved in the issue as well. This week, the Rifle City Council agreed to send the BLM a letter urging that it prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement to consider the economic and other impacts of its proposal on the city, which the council says gets significant property and sales tax revenue from oil and gas companies, employees and support businesses.

It said that the BLM’s proposed measures “may cause significant economic harm to our city” and their impacts “would be devastating.”

The county believes a lot of the impacts are unnecessary. It says sage-grouse habitat in the county differs from the relatively flat terrain in other parts of the bird’s range because it is fragmented, consisting of ridges divided by deep valleys, and with sagebrush habitat alternating with nonhabitat containing aspen and other vegetation.

It contends there are about 60,000 acres of quality sage-grouse habitat in the county requiring protection, about a quarter of what the BLM is using in its mapping.

Garfield also is finalizing comments requesting supplemental study by the BLM and contending that it “failed to meet its legal obligation to provide a reasonable range of alternatives” by excluding the county’s sage-grouse conservation plan within that range. It also says local socioeconomic impacts haven’t been adequately identified.

The BLM included the county plan as an appendix in its draft study and says it welcomes comments on it. It says the plan is contained within the range of alternatives evaluated in that study and its measures could be incorporated in part or in whole in its final plan.

It also says the county’s concerns about habitat fragmentation are valid, but may not acknowledge the importance of connectivity between populations.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said this week that the sage-grouse “gets from one fragmented area to the other by flight.”

The BLM sage-grouse habitat maps are based on Colorado Parks and Wildlife mapping. CPW is working on updating mapping for the Garfield sage-grouse population, and CPW sage-grouse conservation coordinator Kathy Griffin said it’s trying to release the update this fall because of the contentious nature of the issue.

She agreed the area is “very atypical habitat” for sage-grouse but added that the bird uses more than just sagebrush as habitat there.

Some of Garfield County’s sage-grouse spending has been going to American Stewards of Liberty, a private property rights advocacy organization that advises local governments on federal land and environmental issues, and to wildlife scientist Rob Ramey, a sometimes controversial figure who has done work on behalf of the oil and gas industry.

Glenwood Springs resident Bob Millette recently questioned the county’s investment in the sage-grouse work, given all the other research that already has been done. He believes it’s a waste of money.

“It seems to me that it’s clearly designed for the oil and gas industry and not for the greater sage-grouse,” he said.

Wells said the county shouldn’t be all about money, and should recognize the value of the sage-grouse, which is well-known for its strutting mating ritual.

“It’s a joy to behold. (The sage-grouse) is unique, it is necessary and it should be protected,” she said.

Fred Jarman, the county’s community development director, contends the county effort is simply about ensuring the best available science is applied to sage-grouse management.

“This is not an agenda-driven thing. This is a very scientific-driven thing. It just happens to tell a different story,” he said.

Garfield’s efforts are being watched with interest in other counties.

“It’s fascinating what they’ve discovered,” said Jeff Comstock, natural resources director in Moffat County.

He said officials there are looking at whether it might be valuable “to do additional ground-truthing of BLM science.”

Gunnison County developed its own tool that uses soils-based analysis to help identify and prioritize habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse. But Jim Cochran, the county’s wildlife conservation coordinator, said it appears to be a much different approach than Garfield County’s. It was developed in collaboration with state and federal wildlife and land management agencies, and is used by multiple agencies.

“We’ve got buy-in. … This is totally a collaborative effort and the inputs were from all the experts and then field verification has proven to be quite accurate,” he said.

Jankovsky says he believes it’s possible to both reach the oil and gas resource and protect the greater sage-grouse. Hans Parkinson, a Rifle council member, county Energy Advisory Board member and owner of an oil field services company, said recently, “I hope there’s a viable solution that the bird can survive, the habitat can survive and we can also survive.”


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