Originally published December 7, 2013 at 08:03a.m., updated December 7, 2013 at 08:04a.m.
Craig The greater sage grouse debate in Colorado is a big, multilayered issue, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Sage grouse numbers have declined slowly in recent years, prompting conservation groups to have the federal government consider the bird for the endangered species list. If that happens, it could have negative economic impacts on Colorado and Moffat County.
At a glance
11 states involved in sage grouse issue
10 Colorado counties affected by sage grouse debate, including grouse habitat percentage of county area
Moffat, 75 percent
Jackson, 40 percent
Rio Blanco, 14 percent
Routt, 19 percent
Grand, 21 percent
Garfield, 12 percent
Eagle, 7 percent
Larimer, 1 percent
Mesa, 0.7 percent
Summit, 1.4 percent
Source: Jeff Comstock, Moffat County natural resource director
The Bureau of Land Management in Colorado currently is evaluating the bird’s habitat to ensure that sage grouse continues to multiply so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the federal agency that administers the Endangered Species Act — doesn’t list the bird as endangered.
Yet counties across Colorado, including Moffat County, are concerned with the how BLM is going about its research. If BLM proposes extremely stringent restrictions, it could impact Colorado’s economy negatively, specifically as it pertains to agriculture, mineral rights and natural gas extraction.
If BLM, the government agency that controls public land, proposes sage grouse regulations that aren’t restrictive enough, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might put the bird on the endangered species list — an outcome that no one seems to want.
So how can Colorado, BLM, conservation groups and the federal government find a resolution that fits all constituents? That’s the question that Moffat County and nine other Colorado counties are trying to figure out.
Economic implications, timelines
Gov. John Hickenlooper was in Craig on Nov. 25 to visit with the community about a number of issues. After he spoke to a crowd of nearly 200 at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion, he moved into a private meeting with more than a dozen sage grouse stakeholders from across the state who expressed angst about how BLM and state officials are handling the issue.
Stakeholders requested two things of the governor: One was for Hickenlooper to assign a point person to handle the sage grouse issue, and the second was to draft a Colorado alternative for the BLM to include in its recommendation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
BLM is poised to draft sage grouse recommendations — or conservation measures — to fish and wildlife officials by September 2014, according to Northwest BLM District Manager Jim Cagney.
“That’s a really brisk timeline,” he said. “That’s really putting a lot of stress on the situation.”
To help facilitate the issue, Hickenlooper met both of those requests this week by assigning John Swartout as the point person, giving him the task of finding a Colorado alternative for BLM within a 45-day time period, said Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Swartout will meet with Moffat County commissioners Monday night to discuss sage grouse.
“My job is to listen,” Swartout said. “The governor is interested in getting their input.”
The commissioners are happy that Hickenlooper listened to the stakeholders’ demands.
“I’m excited about it because it’s an opportunity to have our voices heard,” said Moffat County Commissioner Chuck Grobe. “The proof will be in the pudding.”
Now, the governor’s office and Swartout are in charge of finding a “balance with protecting the bird … in a way that protects the economy,” King said.
The economic impact for all 10 counties is huge, according to the stakeholders, the governor and BLM.
Moffat County in particular sits on billions of dollars of natural gas that could be negatively affected if sage grouse gets listed or if restrictions are too tight.
Specifically, Moffat County has nearly 73,000 billion cubic feet of natural gas throughout its region. That equates to $254 billion in reserve, which breaks down to $13 billion in tax revenue split between Moffat County School District, the college, the county, city of Craig and more, according to research compiled by the commissioners.
If all that natural gas were extracted — unlikely, but a point the county highlighted to outline the economic ramifications — it also would equal $16 billion in state taxes from royalties, the commissioners said.
Additionally, if that gas were drilled, it would create enough energy for 726 million homes for one year, also equal to 4,580 years of energy for Denver County homes, the research states.
Those numbers represent only one of 10 counties.
If the sage grouse becomes endangered, natural gas extraction will be impossible.
Every party involved, including BLM, knows that the economics of the situation are nothing to brush off lightly.
Proposed decision from BLM
On Dec. 2, concerning parties submitted sage grouse comments to BLM’s research on sage grouse. Cagney received 7,000 comments, he said.
Now, BLM has to go through those comments and draft a recommendation for the bird to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by September 2014. In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service will issue a proposed listing decision. In 2016, that decision will be finalized.
Swartout’s new position as the sage grouse point person and Hickenlooper’s new assignment for him to find a “Colorado alternative” to the issue will give BLM extra information to consider for its recommendation.
History of sage grouse controversy
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife previously determined that perhaps sage grouse should be considered for the endangered species list, yet it was going to preclude the listing because there were more important things to deal with, said Moffat County Natural Resource Director Jeff Comstock.
However, in 2011, the Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying that it should list sage grouse and that it can’t just defer it to another time.
A settlement occurred, stating that by 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must issue a final decision on whether sage grouse should be listed as an endangered species or not based on research.
Thus, the fish and wildlife service told BLM that it must look at sage grouse habitats on public lands and determine if the bird is in fact in danger of becoming extinct.
That’s when BLM took its role in researching the bird.
Private vs. public land, disturbance caps, bird population
BLM now is looking at disturbance caps for sage grouse, meaning the area in which the bird lives and how any sort of disturbance will harm its mating behaviors.
Private land owners and county officials are extremely concerned about those caps, which the BLM tentatively has set between 2 and 5 percent.
That means that “no more than 5 percent of a given grouse area can be disturbed,” Comstock said, noting that if private land owners are in range of that area, then their mineral rights are at risk of having no value — essentially making it difficult to reap the mineral benefits of that private land.
“Now that there’s minimal mineral value, he’s not going to be able to lease or sell his mineral rights,” Comstock said, specifically highlighting the property value of Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers, who owns a large chunk of land in the county.
“The plans they have out there now kills our economy,” Mathers said.
The commissioners want BLM instead to focus on the population numbers of the bird, which is in the hundreds of thousands across the nation.
“Our birds (in Moffat County) are not decreasing. We have proof of that,” Comstock said. “We’re out there saying that there’s a public taking here. They’re taking rights away from people.”
King said that he and the governor’s office want to find a resolution that fits everyone.
“There’s no question that we’re aware of those implications,” King said. “One thing that we’re going to do on the Colorado side is we’re going to adjust the disturbance cap, and I think we’ll probably ask that population absolutely be considered in addition to the habitat.”
The issue goes beyond Colorado and Moffat County. Colorado is one of 11 Western states that have a stake in the sage grouse issue. Hickenlooper is the chair of the Western Governors’ Association, and he will meet with the group in Las Vegas next week to discuss sage grouse in addition to other issues.
Moffat County officials said they are “cautiously optimistic” about Hickenlooper finding a good solution to the issue, Comstock said.
Noelle Leavitt Riley can be reached at 970-875-1790 or nriley@CraigDailyPress.com.