Shutdown delays Colorado, Utah sage-grouse meetings

People hoping to grouse about, or praise, a proposal to list the Gunnison sage-grouse as a federally endangered species will have to wait after meetings planned for Monday and Tuesday were canceled due to the partial government shutdown.

The cancellations of meetings scheduled for Gunnison and Monticello, Utah, will shorten the timeline the Fish and Wildlife Service is working under to decide about the listing and whether to designate 1.7 million acres in western Colorado and Utah as critical habitat to protect the bird.

“The hearings will be rescheduled for a later date. We are sorry for the inconvenience,” Patty Schrader Gelatt, Fish and Wildlife’s western Colorado supervisor, said Friday as she took a few hours off from being furloughed in order to handle the cancellations.

Under a lawsuit settlement with environmental groups, the agency must make its decisions by March 31. It previously faced a Sept. 30 deadline, but a judge granted it another six months so it could consider scientific disagreements regarding the Gunnison sage-grouse.

The canceled hearings complicate things a bit for Fish and Wildlife in terms of its looming deadline because it must allow at least 10 additional days for public comments once hearings are held, she said. The current comment deadline is Oct. 19.

Fish and Wildlife personnel generally aren’t working on endangered species actions under court deadlines during the shutdown, except on a case-by-case basis where the deadlines are imminent. Likewise, the Bureau of Land Management has suspended work on resource management plans even if court deadlines apply.

Gelatt said everyone working on the sage-grouse issue has been furloughed.

“Those who were not furloughed were either considered essential because of health and safety issues or their funding comes from nonappropriated sources,” she said.

By contrast, congressionally appropriated activities are affected by the shutdown.

Gelatt said there’s a lot of interest in the Gunnison sage-grouse issue and she expects a relatively large turnout at the hearings once they are held.

The species’ population of fewer than 5,000 is limited largely to the Gunnison Basin, with populations also existing elsewhere in western Colorado, including in the Piñon Mesa area of Mesa County, and in southeastern Utah.

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, D-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., all had sought the six-month delay in the Fish and Wildlife decision. The agency has been urged to reconsider things such as population trends and the effectiveness of Gunnison County regulations and other measures to protect the sage-grouse.

A Fish and Wildlife consultant recently estimated that designating the bird as endangered could result in $9.7 million to $12 million in economic costs over 20 years, and establishing the proposed critical habitat would result in an additional $3.8 million to $4.7 million in such costs over that time period.

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