State to send Zinke unified message on sage-grouse

SILT — A senior policy adviser to Gov. John Hickenlooper has begun a process of outreach in hopes of coming up with a consensus Colorado recommendation to the Interior Department on management of greater sage-grouse.

John Swartout held a meeting Friday with government representatives in northwest Colorado and the Bureau of Land Management, and he plans to hold subsequent ones with stakeholders like industry, agriculture and environmental groups, and with the public at large.

The goal is to provide comment to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as the Interior Department looks to make changes to BLM plans for managing greater sage-grouse habitat across Western states.

“It’s my hope that there be some kind of consensus recommendation coming back to Secretary Zinke about what Colorado collectively thinks about any potential changes to the plans, any clarifications that would be extremely helpful, any administrative things, the whole spectrum,” Swartout said.

The BLM and Forest Service released management plans for greater sage-grouse habitat in 2015, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide the bird didn’t warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In June, Zinke ordered an internal review team to evaluate those plans, and it came back with recommendations of possible revisions in August.

Swartout said Zinke committed to involve local governments, and Friday’s meeting was intended to gather local input that will be provided to Zinke.

“If we can’t come to agreement, we can’t, but it certainly makes sense to try and see if we can come to some consensus on this together. That makes us stronger if we can,” he said.

The effort comes as Garfield, Rio Blanco, Moffat and Jackson counties continue to pursue a lawsuit challenging the BLM plan in Colorado. Swartout thinks it would be bad for Colorado if the sage-grouse plan in the state, developed over years with local and state involvement, is eliminated altogether under a legal settlement or possible congressional action. That would likely lead to the bird being listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, he believes.

“We didn’t work this hard to throw it all away and get a listing,” he said.

A federal listing would take jurisdiction out of state hands and could mean onerous new measures.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said one concern is that the BLM plan in Colorado is potentially more restrictive than an endangered species listing.

But he added, “it’s better if we can come to consensus and move forward” on revising the plan versus eliminating it. 

He said he is hopeful that Zinke’s review will address some of the concerns counties have raised in their suit.

Counties involved in the lawsuit are concerned about aspects of the plan that heavily restrict things such as oil and gas development, and talk Friday turned to things such as the wisdom of a requirement preventing new oil and gas leasing within a mile of active sage-grouse leks, or breeding grounds. Jeff Comstock, natural resources director for Moffat County, questioned why that limitation couldn’t just apply to surface disturbances rather than leasing. Companies could reach minerals beneath leks through horizontal or directional drilling from distant locations.

Swartout was encouraged by Friday’s conversation and the amount of willingness to compromise he heard among participants about what should be done with the BLM plan in Colorado.

“My direction from the governor is where we can fix it, fix it, but don’t break it, don’t weaken the protections for the grouse to the point that we’re in jeopardy of a listing, and I think we got there” Friday in terms of identifying acceptable fixes, he said.


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