Settle sage-grouse issues out of court, governor says

While several northwest Colorado counties have sued the federal government over its efforts to protect greater sage-grouse, Gov. John Hickenlooper is trying to resolve state and local concerns through conversation rather than litigation.

Hickenlooper aide John Swartout, who has worked as the governor’s point person on the issue, said Hickenlooper joined Govs. Matt Mead of Wyoming and Brian Sandoval of Nevada in meeting with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke more than a month ago.

“Our message was fix the plans but don’t scrap them. Don’t just jettison them,” Swartout said.

In 2015, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service approved plans in 11 Western states in what was a successful effort to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that listing the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act isn’t warranted.

Swartout said the governors urged against throwing out the plans entirely through legislation, administrative action or settlement of lawsuits challenging them.

Scrapping the plans altogether would mean environmentalists would likely sue, and the Fish and Wildlife Service would once again have to make a listing decision for the bird, he said.

Swartout said that while changes need to be made to the plans, “we don’t want to put ourselves in a worse position than we’re already in.”

One avenue for continuing to seek changes is a task force consisting of several Colorado officials including Swartout, and representatives from other sage-grouse states and federal agencies.

“It’s been pretty good at hashing out these issues and trying to collaborate and work together on a solution,” he said.

The federal government is facing multiple suits challenging the sage-grouse plans, including a recently filed lawsuit by Garfield, Moffat, Jackson and Rio Blanco counties.

The counties fear that the BLM plan for northwest Colorado will unduly impact energy development, mining and ranching on public lands, and their suit estimates the plans would have negative economic impacts of $240 million to $584 million.

“The Counties believe BLM has vastly understated economic impacts. Most of the Counties’ revenues come from taxes, the majority of which … are property taxes generated from oil and gas production,” the suit says.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said the county believes about $34 billion worth of natural gas lies under what’s listed as priority greater sage-grouse habitat in the county under the BLM’s plan. The county believes more than $200 million in property tax revenue for the county is at stake due to restrictions imposed by the plan.

A big issue for the county is sage-grouse habitat mapping. It has contracted for its own mapping and contends the county has about 74,000 acres of priority habitat for the bird, about a third of what the BLM plan identifies.

Swartout shares local concerns about habitat mapping, and also sympathizes with the counties when it comes to their contention that the Obama administration made last-minute changes to the sage-grouse plans without consulting with counties. He said the state also feels frustration that its comments aren’t given adequate weight.

“We get along with the counties really well,” on the sage-grouse issue, Swartout said. “There’s a little bit of difference in approach here but they have every right to look out for themselves.”

But he said the state’s hope is that a new greater sage-grouse mapping project in Colorado — pursued by Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado with state funding, and involving Colorado Parks and Wildlife — can bring needed changes to the BLM plans.

“Let’s try to do that without undermining the listing decision” by Fish and Wildlife, he said.

Tim Corrigan, a county commissioner in Routt County, which is home to greater sage-grouse but isn’t part of the lawsuit, said he supports refining the maps but thinks a lawsuit is premature and counterproductive. He said it would undermine many years of collaborative efforts to produce the BLM plans, and like Swartout he fears that eliminating the plans altogether would mean reconsideration of a federal listing decision.

“I concede that (the counties) have legitimate concerns about the extent of the restrictions. I just think a lawsuit is the wrong way to go about it — that there are ways to potentially go back in and adjust these plans,” he said.

He added, “I think the beginning point is whether or not people think it’s important to keep the sage-grouse from going extinct. Count me among the people who believe it’s bad business to drive any creature into extinction, and it’s appropriate that the BLM went through the process that they did and came up with a plan that by and large protected the sage-grouse, yet still allowed for reasonable oil and gas development.”

Moffat County is home to much of the state’s greater sage-grouse population. In a written declaration accompanying the lawsuit, Moffat Commissioner Don Cook said, “A large majority of the breeding and chick rearing habitat in Moffat County is owned and managed by private agriculture producers. Over decades of history, sage grouse populations have gone through peaks and valleys and are now at population highs, demonstrating correct habitat management has occurred.”

Jankovsky said he highly respects Swartout for his sage-grouse work, but thinks Swartout is more optimistic about the issue than the counties are.

“We really feel it’s so broken, the rule is so broken,” he said.

He said he doesn’t want to see things start over from square one, and that’s not the counties’ intention, but they at least want the matter looked at from their perspective.

While another federal listing review is possible, at least it would occur with different people in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service under a new administration, he added.


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