WESTERN SAN JUANS – With the threat of the Gunnison sage grouse being listed as an endangered species and more than 1.7 million acres of land being designated as critical habitat becoming a reality, 11 county governments in western Colorado and eastern Utah are pledging to work together to increase the species’ population.
Over several weeks, the 11 counties – among them Delta, Montrose, San Miguel, Ouray, and Gunnison counties – have agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding intended to “ensure that reasonable and adequate work is being conducted, and shall continue to be conducted to reach the goal of increasing the current abundance, viability and vitality of Gunnison sage grouse and their habitat,” according to the document.
The agreement by the consortium of counties comes after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Jan. 10 its proposal to list the species under the Endangered Species Act because scientific evidence suggests that it is in danger of extinction. Under the act, the Fish and Wildlife Service must also propose potential critical habitat. In accordance with that requirement, the agency has proposed 1.7 million acres of critical habitat to be designated for the Gunnison sage grouse.
For many of the impacted local governments, the critical habitat designation has far-reaching implications.
“I think this memorandum of understanding will be beneficial to all the counties that are signatories to it from a standpoint to hopefully averting an endangered species listing,” Montrose County Commissioner David White said on March 21, before the MOU was approved at a special hearing. “Such a listing for the Gunnison sage grouse will destroy the economies of several counties, and significantly impact Montrose County, given there can be no ground disturbance on what has been identified as critical habitat.”
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Ouray Board of County Commissioners, both the MOU and a letter drafted by Ouray County Attorney Martha Whitmore opposing the listing and the designation of critical habitat in Ouray County were approved.
Ouray County’s letter calls the designation of habitat “premature and unwarranted,” and the description of critical habitat “speculative,” further charging that the action is “arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion by USFWS….[and that] the process is fatally flawed in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act.”
The letter also accuses Fish and Wildlife of failing to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Marti, not only did you capture the board's comments [from a previous meeting], but you made us sound intelligent in putting forward a very good argument against something that would drastically affect farming and ranching in this county,” Ouray Commissioner Don Batchelder told Whitmore.
From her professional experience years ago with a Colorado Division of Wildlife study on sagebrush mapping, Commissioner Lynn Padgett questioned the “habitat polygon” put forward by Fish and Wildlife. “On that basis alone,” she said, habitat designation in the Colona/Montrose County border area “doesn't hold any water.”
IN SAN MIGUEL COUNTY, CONCERNS PROPOSAL DOESN’T GO FAR ENOUGH
But San Miguel County, which has been proactive in efforts to increase the species population in the past, both as an active member of the San Miguel Basin GUSG Working Group since its inception and maintaining an active Land Heritage Program, plans to continue with a focus on improvement of Gunnison sage grouse habitat. To date, the county has dedicated $1,279,000 to place 2,931 acres of occupied sage grouse habitat in conservation easement.
In comments to Fish and Wildlife approved Wednesday, the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners voiced concerns that the proposed listing may not go far enough. “Given the potential for oil and gas development and the fact that some currently deferred lands may be made available in future land use plans, the BOCC believes the proposed rules understate the risk oil and gas development represents to the species,” they commented, going on to express concern that the designation of private lands in the Egnar/Dove Creek area as critical habitat will discourage participation in the Cropland Reserve Program and thus could further reduce suitable sage grouse habitat.
In supporting the GUSG Working Group, San Miguel County has also dedicated an additional $9,500 in 2013 to facilitate work with private property owners, energy developers and other government entities.
“I hope San Miguel County can redouble its efforts to help the bird succeed,” San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes said. “I strongly supported the MOU…it merely calls for all the local governments to work together for the best of the bird. It’s hard not to support that. I think we all hope we can work with Fish and Wildlife to help the bird come back from the brink of extinction.”
The Fish and Wildlife public comment period closes on April 2.
– Additional reporting by Peter Shelton