The Colorado Department of Natural Resources has protested the Bureau of Land Management's proposed resource management plan for its Uncompahgre Field Office with a sharply critical letter saying it fails to adequately protect the Gunnison sage-grouse and big game, and that entities such as the state were given far too little time to review the substantial changes from a draft proposal.
"We hope that future RMP planning processes in Colorado show greater respect for the input and needs of the cooperating agencies," DNR executive director Dan Gibbs said in the letter of protest filed with the BLM Monday.
Monday marked the end of a 30-day period to protest the plan, which would guide public land use on BLM-managed lands and federal mineral estate in parts of Delta, Gunnison, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties.
The BLM also received protests from others including citizen and conservation groups and the town of Paonia and Gunnison County. Many of their concerns focus on oil and gas leasing. The plan would close 44,220 acres to oil and gas leasing, as is currently the case, while declaring 871,810 acres as open to leasing.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, part of the DNR, has been pushing for better protection of big game winter ranges and migration corridors from uses such as high-intensity oil and gas development and high-density recreational activities. Gibbs said in his letter that the BLM failed to take advantage of the planning process to include stipulations limiting road and oil and gas development density despite CPW's repeated requests and an order by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke seeking to improve habitat quality and protect western big game winter range and migration corridors.
The Gunnison sage-grouse is listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species. Its entire population of several thousand birds is mostly concentrated in the Gunnison Basin, with satellite populations found in areas including Piñon Mesa in Mesa County and in southeastern Utah.
Gibbs wrote in his letter that portions of three satellite populations are located in the area of the proposed BLM plan, along with portions of unoccupied critical habitat. Gibbs credited the BLM for deciding to prohibit surface disturbance in occupied critical habitat, and restrict surface use where appropriate in unoccupied critical habitat.
"Colorado is concerned, however, that BLM has not provided further protections to these fragile populations through other resource allocations and management decisions," he wrote.
He wrote that the BLM in 2014 said it would amend the existing management plan to target Gunnison sage-grouse conservation, but it since has abandoned that effort.
Gibbs also wrote that the management alternative announced in June has been substantially changed from a draft of it the state saw a year earlier, including through revisions "that appear to favor energy resource development." He said cooperating agencies such as the state were given a day to preview it before its release to the public and the start of the 30-day protest period, making it challenging to review the alternative.
Patrick Dooling, executive director of the Paonia-based Western Slope Conservation Center, said in an emailed statement, "We thank the State of Colorado for standing with our local community and elected officials — including the Town of Paonia and Gunnison County — in protesting this irresponsible plan." Several Colorado conservation groups submitted a 69-page protest letter arguing the BLM's environmental analysis violates federal laws by not considering how more oil and gas development could harm organic agriculture, wildlife, the climate and endangered species.
BLM spokesman Jayson Barangan said the plan blends alternatives from the draft plan "and responds to local community needs while aligning with the (Trump) administration's priorities like public lands access, sustainable energy development, economic growth and conservation stewardship."
He noted that the BLM also heard from Delta County commissioners.
"Delta County supports all forms of responsible energy development on public lands and formally told the BLM that a diverse energy portfolio is critical for a strong economy," Barangan said.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance industry group, said environmental groups "are trying to spin a narrative that if a plan is completed under the Trump administration then it must be bad. In reality, the amount of acreage open to oil and natural gas in the final plan released by the Trump administration differs from the (draft) Obama administration plan released in October 2016 by 6,000 acres."
She said the plan includes many new restrictions to protect wildlife, air quality, the land and other natural resource values.