Colorado Bureau of Land Management officials this week committed to address concerns in northwest Colorado counties over the agency’s failure to more adequately incorporate new greater sage-grouse habitat maps into their plans for managing the species.
“We have every intention of moving this forward as quickly as possible,” Jamie Connell, the BLM state director in Colorado, assured Garfield and Moffat county commissioners and others who met with them in Rifle on Wednesday.
The meeting was held to talk through frustrations over what the BLM has, and hasn’t, done to date to make use of the new maps.
Maps accurately showing where greater sage-grouse habitat does and doesn’t exist are important because of the management actions the BLM takes to protect the bird in that habitat, which can affect other land uses such as oil and gas development, grazing and recreation.
Garfield County in particular long has pushed for the BLM to use finer-scale rather than broad-brush habitat maps because of the implications they can have particularly for natural gas development in the county.
The issue also is of keen interest to officials in Moffat County because that county is home to more of the birds than any other Colorado county.
In 2015, the BLM adopted new greater sage-grouse protections across the bird’s western terrain, which in Colorado is limited to the northwest part of the state. The move was instrumental in persuading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide the greater sage-grouse didn’t warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Trump administration subsequently has adopted less-restrictive protections for the bird, but a federal judge in October issued an injunction against the revised BLM plans pending the outcome of a legal challenge, meaning the 2015 measures apply for now. An oil and gas lease sale the BLM recently proposed to hold in June exemplified how some of those measures apply in Colorado. The proposal would include a prohibition on surface occupancy on lease acreage within two miles of active grouse breeding grounds known as leks. In priority habitat, it would limit surface disturbance to 3% of acreage, and restrict infrastructure to one facility per square mile.
The BLM relies on Colorado Parks and Wildlife mapping for its Colorado habitat maps. Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado won a state grant of about $380,000 to go toward a CPW effort to improve its maps. While the BLM has made some use of what the CPW produced, local county commissioners say that effort has come up short over the last year since the new maps became available.
“We’re very disappointed with BLM at the state level,” Moffat Commissioner Ray Beck told Connell and other BLM representatives Thursday.
Connell said she understood the frustration over the situation.
“Recognize that you have never had anything but a full commitment from me to incorporate these maps. I thought it would be simpler than it has turned out to be,” she said.
One issue surrounds the fact that the mapping the BLM has incorporated to date fails to show private-land habitat. Local officials say that’s a mistake, given that BLM grouse management measures such as percentage caps on disturbance and limits on the density of development are based on activity on private as well as public land.
“We wish you didn’t have a say over private land but we know the truth is you do,” Jeff Comstock, Moffat County’s natural resources director, told BLM officials.
Connell said the BLM has no authority over private land but makes decisions based on actions on private lands. She said the agency is sensitive when it comes mapping private lands, something she has faced criticism in the past for doing. But she acknowledged the need for its maps to include private-land habitat in this case.
BLM officials also indicated they will work with CPW officials to come up with language making clear that habitat linkage corridors included in the maps aren’t considered grouse habitat qualifying for habitat protections. They also plan to get revised maps from CPW making clear what should be considered priority and general grouse habitat under the BLM plans and thus subject to varying rules based on the habitat category. Greg Shoop, the BLM’s associate state director in Colorado, said the BLM was hesitant to clarify that on its own out of concern it could be accused of manipulating state data.