Grouse decision hailed as good for energy interests
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
A decision Tuesday that the greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, thanks to a collaborative conservation effort, came as good news for Garfield County and Western Slope energy interests.
“Today’s decision is very positive for the sage grouse and is positive for the western United States and Garfield County,” said county Commissioner Tom Jankovsky of Glenwood Springs, who was in Denver on Tuesday for the formal announcement by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
“It’s a good day and an important decision that reflects the cooperation between ranching, wildlife and conservation groups, and energy and mining to work together to protect the sage grouse,” Jankovsky said.
At the same time, concerns persist over pending federal land-use provisions aimed at protecting the bird’s habitat and, in the case of Garfield County, how big a land area that involves.
“That will be a BLM decision,” Jankovsky said, adding the county will need to review the agency’s official records of the decision finalizing the land-use plans that also were released Tuesday.
“This is still an issue for Garfield County that we will want to get resolved,” Jankovsky said of BLM mapping that the county has argued overstates the bird’s habitat in a rugged, natural-gas-rich portion of the county north and west of Parachute.
But the decision not to list the bird as endangered, and the strict protections that would come with that designation, averts a worst-case scenario for the oil and gas industry, including those with leases on federal land as well as ranchers and other private property owners.
“The non-listing is a victory for the three G’s — governors, grouse and ground-based science,” said David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which represents energy producers in the region.
“We are looking forward to engaging the BLM in moving forward on how we can access all of our energy leases while maintaining important protections on the ground,” Ludlam said.
Jewell made the announcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determination at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge north of Denver alongside governors from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Nevada, as well as numerous federal officials.
“This is a truly historic effort, one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” Jewell said, calling the Endangered Species Act a “flexible tool” that can result in collaborative conservation measures short of a full listing.
“The epic conservation effort will benefit Westerners and hundreds of species that call this iconic landscape home while giving states, businesses and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development,” she said.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper agreed.
“Landowners, regional industries, and local, state and federal government have worked in close collaboration over many years,” Hickenlooper said in a prepared statement. “These improvements will enhance not only sage grouse but also all manner of wildlife that are a crucial part of what makes Colorado and the American West the unique place that it is.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service made the determination after evaluating the bird’s population status and reviewing the collective efforts by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, state agencies, private landowners and other partners to conserve its habitat.
Greater sage grouse once numbered in the millions. Over the past century, the bird lost roughly half its habitat to development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that’s encouraging wildfires in the Great Basin of Nevada and adjoining states.
An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 occupy sagebrush habitat spanning 11 Western states.
The finding reverses a 2010 determination that the sage grouse were in precipitous decline. Under a federal court settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Service faced a Sept. 30 deadline to decide the birds’ status one way or the other.
Some environmental groups questioned the decision not to list the bird, while industry groups and some Republicans in Congress, including Colorado’s 3rd District Rep. Scott Tipton, said the protection measures still go too far to curtail development.
“Colorado has been at the forefront of implementing locally tailored sage grouse preservation efforts, and a federal … listing would have jeopardized those efforts,” Tipton said in a prepared statement.
“Unfortunately, the ‘not warranted’ decision is expected to be accompanied by the signing of the final federal land-use plan amendments, which will still jeopardize this local preservation approach,” he said. “While the decision is welcome, the implementation of equally oppressive land-use plans, which do nothing to improve on the work already being done locally to preserve the grouse, still leaves Colorado and other Western communities in a worrisome situation.”
Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist for WildEarth Guardians, said the decision not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered was disappointing, and that pending land-use plans are “replete with crippling flaws.”
“The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West, and now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems,” Molvar said in the statement
But one Colorado-based environmental group struck a decidedly more conciliatory tone.
“The scope and scale of this unprecedented effort is astounding,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director for Conservation Colorado. “It highlights that through collaboration, diverse interests can achieve unbelievable results, focusing on a shared goal and not our perceived differences.
“However, it is critical that we work together to implement BLM plans and ensure every state plan is striving to complement important conservation objectives on private and state lands.”
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Colorado has had more than 900 wildfires this year, consuming more than 330,000 acres. The statewide fire ban has been extended through September due to ongoing dry conditions.