GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A series of internal emails between U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials and wildlife experts in late 2011 suggest some reservations about a National Technical Team (NTT) report that was used as a basis for coming up with a plan to protect the greater sage-grouse.
In particular, some comments by BLM officials during the early stages of a federal study to determine the bird’s habitat in northwest Colorado and other Western states seem to question the science behind the NTT’s recommended protective measures, said Fred Jarman, the lead staffer for Garfield County in its role as a cooperating agency with the BLM on the Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse draft Environmental Impact Statement.
The messages, dating from late September 2011 through December of that year, were obtained on behalf of Garfield County by independent wildlife biology consultant Rob Ramey through an official Freedom of Information request, Jarman said.
They were included along with Garfield County’s formal comments to the BLM on the draft EIS and were submitted by the Monday deadline.
In one message, Jim Perry, senior natural resources specialist for the BLM in Washington, D.C., questions the scientific basis for a suggested 3 percent cap on surface disturbance within identified priority sage-grouse habitat management zones.
“It appears the BLM is being unnecessarily set up for immediate failure across the priority habitats,” Perry writes in the Dec. 22, 2011, message to fellow BLM officials, including Dwight Fielder, the now-retired chief of the BLM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in Washington, and Raul Morales, the BLM’s deputy Nevada state director for natural resources, lands and planning.
“Nearly all [zones] contain roads, pipelines, power lines, homes, farms, well pads, etc. …,” Perry notes. “Science says 30-50 percent [cap] in non-sagebrush cover is OK, but the NTT report says 3 percent.
“Am I missing something … or is this a misappropriation of professional judgment and science?,” he inquires.
The 3 percent cap is one of the NTT measures proposed in Alternative B of the draft EIS. The NTT is a team of federal and state-level wildlife biologists and resource specialists charged with providing expertise and making recommendations for protecting the bird’s habitat.
Four alternatives are included in the document, including the less-restrictive “preferred” Alternative D which was drafted with the input of cooperating agencies including Garfield and other northwest Colorado counties.
The preferred plan increases the disturbance cap to 5 percent and limits that restriction to sagebrush-covered areas within the larger habitat zones. It also maintains the NTT’s suggested four-mile buffer between natural gas well pads and other types of surface uses and sage-grouse breeding, nesting and rearing areas.
Those restrictions remain a contention for Garfield County officials, who say the proposed protection plan is still too strict and that the bird’s habitat in much of the region is being overstated in the study.
The BLM is preparing the plan to protect greater sage-grouse habitat on public lands in the region, of which is believed to be threatened by activities including energy development. The plan is an attempt to keep the bird off the federal Endangered Species List.
One the NTT members, University of Montana wildlife biologist Dave Naugle replied to Perry’s email question, saying the 3 percent cap is necessary to protect the core habitat areas.
“The non-sagebrush sites within cores may be naturally fragmented or the result of past [human] impacts,” Naugle wrote. “Regardless, we cannot further litter the cores with additional … impacts, without expecting impacts to [bird] populations.”
Mitch Snow, a BLM spokesman in Washington, said such exchanges are common during the planning stages of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) studies, and serve to provide checks and balances along the way.
“Lots and lots of information goes into these studies,” Snow said, adding he wasn’t sure how often the agency receives requests to release those internal communications.
“The NTT does serve as a basis for one of the [sage-grouse] alternatives, but it’s not the only information that was considered,” Snow said. “We do expect and appreciate people giving us in-depth comments. It does make for a better document.”
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, in moving to forward the county’s comments to the BLM on Monday, pointed to another email sent by Mike Nedd, assistant director of minerals and realty management for the BLM.
“The NTT conservation measures are complete game-changers for any actions within the priority habitats where there are valid existing [public land-use] rights, and showstoppers for those actions where there are no valid existing rights,” Nedd wrote in the Dec. 20, 2011, message.
Garfield County objects to the proposed sage-grouse plan, saying the protections are too restrictive and would negatively impact jobs and tax revenues associated with oil and gas development in the region.
“The draft EIS contains a great deal of opinion that is not backed up by any demonstrated scientific results,” the county advises the BLM. “More concerning is the fact that the authors appear to have extrapolated science from other areas and arbitrarily applied it to northwest Colorado.”
David Boyd, spokesman for the BLM’s Northwest Colorado District, said the agency received approximately 7,500 comments on the draft EIS.
“We will continue to work with Garfield County and the other cooperating agencies as we move forward developing a proposed plan,” Boyd said.
A final record of decision on the greater sage-grouse plan is not expected until sometime after the first of the year.
“We will continue to work with Garfield County and the other cooperating agencies as we move forward developing a proposed plan.”
Spokesman for the BLM’s Northwest Colorado District