GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Though the science behind it is admittedly a work in progress, Garfield County commissioners on Monday signed off on a plan that suggests a 93 percent reduction in what's considered suitable habitat for the greater sage-grouse in the county, compared to the area being evaluated by federal land managers.
The draft Garfield County Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan was presented Monday to the commissioners by a team of hired consultants who were asked to do a county-specific scientific analysis of the suitable habitat for the bird.
Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a resolution in support of the draft findings, and establishing a policy for protecting greater sage-grouse habitat on both public and private lands.
But that just sets the stage for a likely showdown with the feds over whose science is better.
"Our goal here is to make sure the science is right, and not just bent to what we or anyone else wants to hear," Garfield Commission Chairman John Martin said, adding he's prepared to take the argument all the way to Congress.
Beyond the computer modeling used to identify the bird's habitat, though, Martin said the findings will need to be proven through follow-up field work.
"We have to make sure this plan stands up to challenges, because it is going to be challenged," he said.
Without an adopted statewide sage-grouse protection plan in place, it will be incumbent on counties to offer up their own local protection plans for consideration, said Margaret Byfield of the Texas-based American Stewards of Liberty, which is assisting the county in its coordinating role with the Bureau of Land Management.
"You are leading the way in doing this, not only in Colorado, but for all 11 states that are affected by this issue," Byfield said.
The BLM is currently developing a plan to protect the greater sage-grouse on public lands in those states in an effort to keep the bird off of the federal threatened and endangered species list.
Local officials from Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, in particular, along with the oil and gas industry, have expressed concerns that those measures could hamper drilling activities, especially if the bird's habitat is overstated.
Earlier mapping provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials identifies roughly 221,000 acres in the rugged area northwest of Rifle, extending along the Roan Plateau north of Parachute and De Beque, as priority greater sage-grouse habitat.
The plan adopted by the Garfield commissioners on Monday identifies only 7 percent of that area, about 15,500 acres, as suitable habitat.
That determination was made by a trio of wildlife scientists and mapping specialists hired by the county to develop the localized plan.
The team includes noted wildlife biologist Rob Ramey of Nederland-based Wildlife Science International, who has refuted scientific data in other government studies related to endangered and threatened species.
Also working on the project were Eric Petterson of Rocky Mountain Ecological Services, and habitat mapping specialist Zach Perdue of Pendo Solutions.
The county has asked that the BLM consider local conservation plans in adopting its protection plan for the greater sage-grouse.
However, BLM District Manager Jim Cagney has stated that the agency cannot easily consider existing conservation plans, especially if the recommended protections are voluntary.
The county's plan seeks to address that concern by making its protections mandatory on any public lands identified as suitable habitat. Those protections would be voluntary or incentive-based on private lands.
Included in the county's plan would be a 0.6-mile buffer zone around identified leks, which are areas where sage-grouse mate and nest. The county proposal is different from the BLM proposal for a 4-mile buffer zone.