Impending sage-grouse protections bring conservation, drilling interests to the fore
The greater sage-grouse, a favorite of shotgunners and fanciers of colorful bird behavior, is teetering on the brink of extinction in the American West, according to environmental organizations.
It’s a question the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to resolve in 2015 by deciding whether to list the bird as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Efforts to save the bird under the act, however, could imperil the fragile economies of rural areas such as northwestern Colorado, say county commissioners, residents and energy-industry officials who maintain that coal mining and drilling for natural gas are every bit as threatened as the greater sage-grouse.
The stakes surrounding the greater sage-grouse are the “equivalent of the oil shale shutdown” in 1982 for the affected counties, said former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, now the executive director of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado.
That’s a bit apocalyptic, said Luke Schafer of Conservation Colorado.
“The idea that conservation means shutting down drilling is a false notion,” Schafer said, noting that the efforts of another federal agency offer an opportunity to help birds and energy development.
The Bureau of Land Management, which administers nearly half of Colorado’s 4 million acres of greater sage-grouse habitat, is accepting through Dec. 2 public comment on an environmental impact statement and proposals to change the way the agency manages land.
The BLM’s greater sage-grouse decision, due by Sept. 30, 2014, stands to affect about 6 percent of Colorado’s nearly 67 million acres, or nearly a quarter of the northwest quadrant of the state.
That same quadrant also is home to some of Colorado’s most productive coal mines, a giant storehouse of natural gas and associated liquids far beneath the rough and arid exterior tailor-made for a bird that depends on sagebrush for food and cover.
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, speaking in October in Rifle, said the development of natural resources in Garfield County worth $34 billion hangs in the balance, to say nothing of $406 million in property tax revenue to the county over 20 years.
Garfield County commissioned its own $200,000 study of the greater sage-grouse in hopes of nudging the BLM toward placing its confidence in local officials to find ways to accommodate the bird and the energy industry.
One potential element of the BLM approach to preserving the greater sage-grouse is the use of a four-mile buffer around leks, or mating grounds, for the bird.
The buffer was proposed by the BLM’s national technical team of experts using observations and data from rolling high prairie similar to the habitat of Wyoming and Moffat County.
Such a buffer wouldn’t work on the higher-elevation Roan Plateau, Jankovsky said. The plateau is fragmented by erosion on its steep slopes, and forests of aspen on one side and conifer on the other — both unfriendly to the grouse — bracket the bird’s habitat.
“The biggest threat to the bird in our area is the encroachment of pinyon-juniper forest” into the sage lands in which the grouse thrives, Jankovsky said.
Forested lands threaten birds because they provide vantage points on which predators such as raptors can scout for the ground-hugging grouse.
A buffer crafted for different topography would result in a “devastating” loss of revenue to Garfield County, Jankovsky said.
BLM officials are aware of Garfield County’s position, said agency spokesman David Boyd.
The approach advocated by the northwest Colorado counties “has been proven not to be successful,” said Schafer of Conservation Colorado.
That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that there might not be some common ground between the sides.
Conservation Colorado and The Wilderness Society said the BLM plan “leaves a lot of uncertainty for the future of the bird, which could be bad for oil and gas drillers, conservationists and sportsmen, as well as the bird itself.”
Managing the entire 4 million acres for the benefit of the greater sage-grouse isn’t necessarily the best idea, Schafer said.
It could be that there are only as many as a dozen priority or core areas in Colorado that require strict management for preservation of the bird, Schafer said.
Conflicts between birds and energy could have significant consequences for the region’s economy, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
“Just a single natural gas field threatened by the sage grouse listing contains over $30 billion of natural gas that may have to be left in the ground,” Ludlam said.
“This is enough money to fund the city of Grand Junction’s annual budget for 240 years or restore the Avalon Theatre 3,000 times over. We’ve been producing western Colorado’s natural gas while protecting the sage grouse for decades but can only continue to do so if reasonable restrictions that allow for flexibility are adopted.”
Estimates of the population of greater sage-grouse can be difficult, Schafer said, but the Fish and Wildlife Service, citing Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife estimates, pegged the Colorado population at 22,646 in 2008.
Biologist George Grinnell in 1886 near Casper, Wyo., said the passage of grouse overhead “reminded me of the old-time flights of Passenger Pigeons that I used to see when I was a boy. Before long, the narrow valley where the water was, was a moving mass of gray. I have no means whatever of estimating the number of birds which I saw, but there must have been thousands of them.”
The passenger pigeon is now extinct and the fear is that a similar fate awaits the greater sage-grouse.
Some 350 other species, such as elk, pronghorn and mule deer, rely on the same habitat, prompting Schafer to note that the decline of the grouse suggest it’s an indicator species.
“That the sagebrush ecosystem is not functioning properly is a fact,” Schafer said.
Still, “This isn’t 900,000 acres or nothing,” said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society, speaking of the organizations’ position.
The BLM decision is an opportunity, Culver said, “to craft a plan for Colorado by Coloradans.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper is set to meet with northwest Colorado officials on Monday as he passes through the region with stops in Rifle and Craig.
He called for a “Colorado-based solution” to be approved by the Bureau of Land Management to fend off the threat of an endangered listing for the greater sage-grouse.
“Given the unique landscapes and natural resources in Colorado, a Colorado-based solution is more practical than one handed down by the federal government,” Hickenlooper said in a statement soon after northwest Colorado officials chided him in a press conference in Rifle.
The BLM is evaluating four alternatives for the habitat areas.
Alternative D is the BLM’s preferred alternative and it calls for using the best available data on grouse habitat with adjustments to reflect local conditions and the input of cooperating agencies.
Alternative A would continue current management direction for all five agency field offices involved in the planning effort, as well as the Routt National Forest.
Alternative B is based on recommendations of the agency’s National Technical Team that called for closing off leasing for oil and natural gas and right-of-way exclusions.
Alternative C is based on recommendations of conservation groups for protection and conservation of the grouse and its habitat by establishing an area of critical environmental concern centered on conserving the grouse.
The agency can pick and choose elements from among all the alternatives in its final decision.
Broad as the preferred alternative might seem, it’s aimed at one species, said Callie Hendrickson, agriculture committee chairwoman for Club 20 and executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek conservation districts.
“The bottom line is that when you look at the alternatives, they’re not very broad,” Hendrickson said. The preferred alternative in fact is to be made up of alternatives B and C, she said.
At a minimum, that would hinder but not prohibit activities such as grazing and oil and gas development.
“It is single-species management,” Hendrickson said of the BLM approach. “Not only do we think we can manage for multiple species, but for other uses, as well.”