Federal delegation sees sage-grouse issue from view of regulatory critics
CRAIG — Peering across the heart of greater sage-grouse country Tuesday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the heads of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management praised the joint conversation that’s taking place in an effort to protect the bird and manage its habitat.
“The fact that everybody is around the table is really impressive,” Jewell said.
For everyone from Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers to Gov. John Hickenlooper, what was impressive was that Jewell, Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe and Neil Kornze, principal deputy director of the BLM, all came to this remote part of northwestern Colorado to join in the discussion.
“To have all the top brass here at one time, it was amazing,” Mathers said.
“We had everybody right here … everybody that mattered,” Hickenlooper said. “And they listened, is the most important thing.”
The federal trio came to see firsthand voluntary sage-grouse conservation measures being undertaken at the Bord Gulch Ranch, far up Moffat County Road 7 northwest of town. Their visit comes as the Fish and Wildlife Service faces a 2015 decision on whether to list the greater sage-grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and as the BLM weighs land-management measures it hopes will help persuade its fellow Interior Department agency that such a listing isn’t warranted.
Both the prospect of a listing and the measures being considered by the BLM have caused consternation among several northwest Colorado counties, and among oil and gas, agricultural, recreation and other interests.
Their concern ultimately came to be shared by Hickenlooper himself, and last week he sent the BLM a letter urging it to take an adaptive management approach that protects the greater sage-grouse while safeguarding energy, agriculture and other economic engines of the region. He also pointed to the benefits of public/private partnerships, and on Tuesday Jewell, Ashe and Kornze were able to witness the results of one such partnership.
They stopped at the Bord Gulch Ranch to view sage-grouse conservation measures undertaken under the leadership of ranch manager Ray Owens. He’s one of two 2013 recipients of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Wildlife Landowner of the Year honor, and the ranch, owned by the Gilliland family, has been working in cooperation with agencies such as Parks and Wildlife and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Owens described fencing, watering, sagebrush treatment and other measures that benefit not just the birds but other wildlife. He said he doesn’t just manage for a single species.
“You have to manage it for everything,” said Owens.
He went on to detail efforts such as maintaining a variety of ages of sagebrush to avoid ending up with big, old stands susceptible to wildfire, and also maintaining fields without sagebrush because they provide places for elk to feed.
Owens spoke Tuesday from a hilltop in a seeming sagebrush ocean with waves extending to Wyoming and Utah.
“People are changing. The neighbors are seeing the benefit of what we’re doing,” he said.
He believes approaches such as the one the Bord Gulch Ranch is involved in make more sense than the government handing down rules.
“Just like your kid — you start giving them rules and they rebel,” he said.
Rebellion isn’t an entirely foreign concept in Moffat County. Upset over some state-level actions, commissioners there asked voters in November whether they wanted to pursue secession from the state, although the measure failed.
Still, a number of residents and elected officials in the county have considered Hickenlooper part of the problem, thanks in part to his support for things such as stricter gun laws and higher renewable-energy standards for rural electricity. But the governor’s recent actions on greater sage-grouse, which included appointing John Swartout as a point person on the issue and ultimately formulating the position presented to the BLM last week, have drawn the notice of Mathers.
“I am so impressed with our governor right now,” said Mathers.
Jewell also had praise for the role Hickenlooper has been playing on sage-grouse.
“Governor Hickenlooper has been a real leader in this process,” she said.
For his part, Hickenlooper said he hadn’t expected Jewell to come to Craig, and it was a generous move on her part. He said he also respects her private-sector roots.
“She understands how the real world works,” said Hickenlooper, who said it appears she’ll lead a team that wants to consider local concerns.
Jewell has been on the job less than a year, having replaced Coloradan Ken Salazar. She said she’s learning every day and that it’s important to listen closely to people such as Owens.
“We don’t pretend to have all the answers,” she said.
At the same time, Ashe emphasized the Fish and Wildlife Service is obligated to make a decision based on the science about the potential listing of the sage-grouse.
“We’re making a diagnosis. It’s either threatened or endangered, or it’s not,” he said.
But he said if the bird ends up being listed, there’s a lot of flexibility to recognize efforts being undertaken by individual properties, counties and states, and determine in some circumstances that further efforts aren’t needed.
Meanwhile, the BLM has its own sage-grouse conservation plan decisions to make both in Colorado and other states. Fish and Wildlife has submitted comments saying the BLM’s Colorado proposal doesn’t go far enough, even as it has heard lots of other concerns that the proposal is too restrictive.
Kornze, who is President Obama’s nominee to be the BLM’s director and is leading the agency in the interim, said the BLM is working on 15 plans across the West.
“It’s a large balancing act. … It’s both local and it’s West-wide at the same time,” he said.
Jim Cagney, who heads the BLM in Northwest Colorado, said the important thing will be to look at the details of the comments that have been submitted in trying to find a workable approach.
Ashe said he’s never seen an effort like the one occurring regarding the greater sage-grouse.
“We have everybody sitting around the same table, working together. … People are working in good faith with one another,” he said.
Jewell, who noted that she had sat down in Denver earlier Tuesday with the oil and gas industry and others to talk about how to reduce methane emissions related to drilling and production, said she thinks the sage-grouse conversation can serve as a model for how to deal with other issues, including the methane concern.
“What’s happening here around sage-grouse is an extraordinary effort,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., urged Jewell to work with local officials who already are working to conserve the greater and Gunnison sage-grouse.
“Secretary Jewell’s visit to Craig today is welcome, and I am hopeful that she will truly take into consideration all of the work being done in Colorado to preserve the sage grouse, and will work with state and local conservation efforts by providing long-awaited measurable expectations for species recovery so that we can ensure those goals are being met at the local level,” Tipton said.
Tipton was in Durango when Jewell visited Craig on Tuesday. He already had other commitments when Jewell’s schedule was announced, Tipton’s staff said.
Listing the grouse as endangered would “put private lands off-limits to most use and development, including agriculture production and grazing, without providing any compensation,” Tipton said. “These listings would kill jobs, devastate communities, and disrupt effective species preservation efforts currently underway. They won’t, however, more effectively preserve the grouse.”
Staff writer Gary Harmon contributed to this report.