RIFLE — Officials from several northwest Colorado counties gathered here Thursday, calling on Gov. John Hickenlooper to help them persuade the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to back away from what they see as overly strict measures being proposed to protect the greater sage-grouse.
“We need the help of the governor to get the BLM to use the right maps [for determining the bird’s habitat in the region],” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said in reference to disputes over the bird’s range in Garfield and neighboring counties.
“We want to be able to protect the bird in their true habitat, and still be able to extract the resources in that area,” Jankovsky said, referring to an estimated $34 billion worth of oil and gas and other natural resources in the affected area north of Parachute.
That translates to about $406 million in property tax revenues for the county over the next 20 years, not to mention jobs and sales taxes for the local communities, he said.
Jankovsky and fellow Garfield County commissioners Mike Samson and John Martin were joined by commissioners from Rio Blanco, Moffat and Mesa counties, as well as representatives from ranching, energy and other businesses interests for the press conference outside the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
“This is a really serious issue for our region,” said Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese. “The state’s economy isn’t just the Front Range, we have different issues here.
“We’re asking that you please listen to the Western Slope commissioners, and work with us on this,” she requested of the governor.
The affected counties, which have been working with the BLM as cooperating agencies in developing the draft Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse EIS, have said they don’t believe their concerns are being heard.
Hickenlooper responded to the concerns in a Thursday afternoon press release, saying he and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources are involved in the sage-grouse conservation efforts, and are cognizant of the concerns of the cooperating agencies in the region.
“Given the unique landscapes and natural resources in Colorado, a Colorado-based solution is more practical than one handed down by the federal government,” Hickenlooper said. “We hope the Bureau of Land Management will look at the public-private partnerships that have been so successful in Colorado as a model on how to get things done.”
That includes incorporating a comprehensive conservation plan for the sage-grouse developed in 2008 that included a range of voluntary efforts to protect the bird’s habitat on private lands, Hickenlooper said.
“This plan was the basis for the state to build upon for the current consideration of possible listing,” according to the governor’s press release. “The state is working with all interests to assess how well these conservation efforts are working, and what more can be done to improve upon them.”
Jankovsky also referred to the 2008 plan, which included a sub-area conservation plan for western Garfield County that the county wanted the BLM to consider in developing its plan for public lands.
More importantly, Jankovsky said, is that the BLM plan use the proper mapping for determining the bird’s habitat range.
He said one map provided to the BLM by Colorado Parks and Wildlife shows a more general range for the bird covering more than 200,000 acres in Garfield County alone.
Protections proposed based on that map, including limits on mineral leasing and surface development, could be devastating to the region’s economy, he said.
Another map provided by the state more closely resembles habitat maps prepared by the county’s own wildlife consultants that takes into account the more rugged, mountainous terrain that serves to break up the prime sage-grouse habitat, Jankovsky said.
That’s one reason a proposed four-mile buffer zone around leks, which are areas where the bird mates, “doesn’t make sense” in parts of western Colorado, he said.
“Given the topography of the planning area, there is substantial acreage within four miles of leks that may not be sage-grouse habitat,” according to an information sheet handed out at the Thursday press conference. “This overly broad restriction does not provide a mechanism to consider site-specific conditions.”
Hickenlooper noted in his response that the state has spent more than $40 million since 2000 on greater sage-grouse conservation efforts. The state is preparing comments on the BLM’s draft environmental analysis to submit by the Dec. 2 deadline.
“The state’s comments will identify individual provisions largely within two alternatives that will help provide protection of species while not infringing on existing economic activities such as grazing, oil and gas production, and community development, and will propose the creation of a hybrid approach that accomplishes this in the final EIS,” according to the governor’s statement.