Tighter grouse controls might satisfy Fish and Wildlife

The Bureau of Land Management may tighten its proposed human disturbance cap in priority greater sage-grouse habitat from 5 percent to 3 percent in northwest Colorado.

The move would align the agency’s plans with a national technical team’s recommendation, but it comes after Gov. John Hickenlooper questioned the use of any cap, calling the approach untested.

“I don’t even disagree with that, but I think I need that to proceed,” Jim Cagney, the BLM’s manager for northwest Colorado, told the agency’s Resource Advisory Council for that region Thursday.

Cagney also said it appears the agency’s management plan for the sage-grouse in northwest Colorado won’t be done until February rather than September. It is trying to get the plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as that agency works to decide by a court deadline of September 2015 whether to list the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act — which the BLM hopes to prevent the need for through its land management efforts.

The final northwest Colorado plan is expected this summer but is subject to a protest period.

The BLM’s preferred draft alternative proposed a 5 percent cap on man-caused disturbances on sites supporting sagebrush in priority sage-grouse habitat in each management zone.

Hickenlooper raised his concern after worries arose among oil and gas interests, area counties and others about the possible impacts of proposed measures to protect the bird. But the Fish and Wildlife Service contends the 5 percent cap would be insufficient and could lead to population declines.

Cagney said his renewed consideration of the 3 percent cap is based on what grouse biologists are saying.

“I don’t have the personal knowledge to argue with them,” he said.

He said having the 3 percent cap could give the BLM flexibility to provide certain exceptions from rules for oil and gas drilling and other activities as long as the cap isn’t exceeded.

In cases where activity is proposed that surpasses the cap and the BLM is limited in its ability to control it, such as actions involving existing oil and gas leases that come with certain rights, the agency could then decide not to make exceptions to rules such as no-surface-occupancy restrictions.

“I really think that we’re going to have to do that if we’re going to ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to say this is good enough and we don’t have to list the bird,” he said.

He believes being able to provide exceptions is important to supporting local economic activities, and the criteria dictating when such exceptions should and shouldn’t be provided will “emerge as a big deal” in the final proposal.

For example, Cagney said, there also shouldn’t be waivers near major sage-grouse leks, or mating grounds, that are responsible for a high percentage of reproduction numbers.

“There needs to be a recognition that some places are far more important than others,” he said.

Likewise, a proposed individual activity’s contribution to cumulative impacts should be considered, he said.

At the same time, Cagney said he thinks there’s a “lot of truth” to Garfield County’s argument that the mountainous terrain of its sage-grouse habitat is different from the flat terrain of a lot of the bird’s habitat and should be taken into consideration in managing activities.

He cited as an example when a ridge is between a lek and proposed drilling operation.

“It just really makes it de facto much, much further away. It buffers the sound,” he said.


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