RIFLE — A coalition of northwest Colorado county commissioners and business interests are asking state officials, including the governor, to get involved in the federal effort to come up with a conservation plan for the greater sage-grouse in the region.
Representatives from the various cooperating agencies that have been working with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to develop a plan to protect the bird’s habitat have called a press conference for 11 a.m. today at the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
The purpose is to ask Gov. John Hickenlooper to “stand up to the BLM and demand a greater sage-grouse alternative that represents the wishes of cooperating stakeholders,” according to a Wednesday press release from the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado (AGNC).
County commissioners from Garfield, Mesa, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties will be on hand to share their thoughts on the increasingly contentious issue.
Representatives are also expected to be on hand from the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Club 20, the Rifle Chamber, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership and the White River and Douglas Creek conservation districts, said Scott McInnis, the former Republican congressman from Colorado’s Third District who is now executive director of the AGNC.
The groups and local government representatives are asking the governor and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to become active participants in the sage-grouse planning efforts.
Specifically, they said they want the BLM to “develop broader alternatives for analysis and public comment that consider habitat disturbance, while protecting employment, tax revenues and other socio-economic issues in the region,” according to the press release.
“These cooperating agencies and stakeholders are highly concerned they are not being listened to as the BLM drafts management plan amendments for lands considered to be the bird’s habitat.”
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the DNR, said the state is involved and will be submitting comments to the BLM on the draft Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) by the Dec. 2 deadline.
“We’ve long supported managing sage grouse at the state level and all our efforts are geared toward ensuring the bird is protected sufficiently to avert a listing,” Hartman said.
The BLM’s draft plan includes a preferred Colorado Sub-Regional Alternative D, which was developed using input from the 14 northwest Colorado cooperating agencies that participated in the process. Among those agencies was the DNR.
The alternative is still being weighed alongside the recommendations of an inter-agency technical team and those of conservation groups, contained in Alternatives B and C, respectively. A no-action Alternative A is also being studied.
The preferred alternative seeks to strike a middle ground compared to the more-restrictive protections contained in the other alternatives, including limits on mineral leasing and other development within designated and priority sage-grouse habitat.
The sub-regional plan would include limits on surface occupancy, but not on leasing.
Also still in the mix and “within the range of alternatives,” according to BLM officials, is a proposal put forward by Garfield County that suggests the bird’s habitat in remote northwest Garfield County and neighboring counties has been overstated.
Consultants working on behalf of the county have offered evidence that the habitat area is as much as 93 percent smaller than what biologists working on the federal study have used in their analysis.
County commissioners have also asked that socio-economic impacts be given greater attention in the sage-grouse study.
The sage-grouse study and conservation plan is being done at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which must decide by 2015 whether to include the bird on the federal Endangered Species list.