Wildlife officials, GarCo differ on greater sage-grouse habitat

Special to The Sentinel/Richard Olsen Greater sage grouse, such as this male, may be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. More than 220,000 acres in Garfield County have been identified as priority habitat for the bird, and county officials fear that conservation recommendations could severely limit oil and gas development, grazing and other activities.

A map developed by Garfield County significantly under-
represents the habitat needed by the greater sage grouse, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife official told the county Thursday.

However, county officials and consultants continued to challenge the basis for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s own map, its refusal to release some data used in creating it, and the idea that the Bureau of Land Management could make decisions based on what the county considers to be a flawed document.

“This should be incredibly alarming for anybody listening to this discussion,” said Fred Jarman, head of the county’s Community Development Department.

At issue is a Parks and Wildlife priority habitat map for the greater sage grouse that the BLM is using as it considers measures to protect the bird, a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

County officials are alarmed about a national team’s sage grouse conservation recommendations that they believe could severely limit oil and gas development, grazing and other activities in the county.

They contend the more than 220,000 acres identified as priority habitat in the county are far different from the flat sagebrush habitat in other parts of the West, and they commissioned a study that identified only 7 to 15 percent as much priority habitat as that found by Colorado Parks and Wilflife.

But Brad Petch, senior terrestrial biologist for Parks and Wildlife’s Northwest Region, said he doesn’t think the model the county used for its mapping is sufficient.

He acknowledged the unique habitat in the county, which is marked by sagebrush highlands cut by steep, narrow canyons, but he said recent research is showing the birds display far more tolerance for living among not just sagebrush but other common vegetation in the region, from mountain shrubs to oak brush to aspen.

Petch said Colorado Parks and Wildlife has released some information to the county regarding the basis of its map but has withheld data still being gathered “to maintain the integrity of ongoing research.”

Jarman said the BLM can only prepare an environmental impact statement using information publicly available for review.

But Jim Cagney, the BLM’s district manager in northwest Colorado, said the agency has always relied on maps from state agencies.

He said he’s “horrified” by the idea of the BLM having to commit resources to do duplicate mapping of its own in support of its decisions.

The county contends the BLM is legally obligated to consider its map and grouse conservation plan.

When pressed on whether the agency will include Garfield County’s proposal among its management alternatives, Cagney said he’s prohibited from disclosing information prior to decisions being made.

“We will certainly acknowledge that this alternative exists and take a hard look at it,” he added.


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