BLM open to sage-grouse mapping changes
RIFLE — Garfield County officials remain optimistic over possible changes to habitat mapping for the greater sage-grouse in Colorado, changes that those officials said could ease restrictions on development, specifically in the oil and gas industry, while protecting the bird’s habitat in an area northwest of Parachute.
The optimism stems from two recent developments: an assurance from the Bureau of Land Management that habitat mapping can change as new data becomes available; and an effort by Colorado’s northwest communities to conduct new habitat mapping across the region.
“We’re very hopeful but the devil is in the details,” Fred Jarman, Garfield County community development director, said Thursday evening during a presentation to the county’s Energy Advisory Board.
The county maintains its running contention that mapping used in developing the BLM’s sage-grouse protection measures does not take into account detailed terrain changes within the habitat area identified in Garfield County.
Alternative mapping by the county took a finer-scale look at the terrain, and concluded the habitat areas were smaller than those identified in the mapping used by the BLM, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said Thursday.
“It’s very different than the rolling sagebrush habitat in Wyoming or in Moffat County for that matter,” Jankovsky said of the terrain in northwest Garfield County.
The county first learned about the potential for future changes to the habitat mapping during a stakeholder meeting last week, according to Jarman, who added that Colorado Parks and Wildlife — the agency that provided the data for the current state sage-grouse mapping — indicated the map was not intended for specific policy implementation.
Jeff Ver Steeg, Colorado Parks and Wildlife assistant director for research, policy and planning, clarified that comment Friday, saying that the data was provided at the request of the BLM when it started the land use amendment process.
“We thought it would be used for analysis,” he said. “We didn’t know at the end of the process that it would actually be tied to specific regulations.”
The BLM used the data provided by CPW for the habitat mapping, and that mapping may change as new data is presented, David Boyd, public affairs specialist for the BLM Northwest Colorado District, said Friday.
“As new information becomes available that changes the maps, we can incorporate that into the plan,” Boyd said. “The process we use will just depend on what those changes are.”
That new comes as the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado works to secure a $380,000 grant from the Department of Local Affairs for finer-scale habitat mapping in seven different counties.
Garfield, Rio Blanco and Moffatt counties have all contributed a financial match of $15,000 each, while Southwestern Energy and Chevron have contributed $5,000 each, and another company has said it will contribute up to $15,000, said Bonnie Petersen, executive director of AGNC.
Those matching funds are contingent on approval of the grant. AGNC plans on presenting to the DOLA grant committee on Nov. 17 in Grand Junction.
In September, the BLM released two official records of decision finalizing land use plans aimed at conserving the greater sage-grouse in 10 Western states, including Colorado. The greater sage-grouse population has steadily declined over decades, with the current population in the U.S. estimated at 200,000 to 500,000.
The same day the finalized management plans were released, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formally announced a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the sage-grouse as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
While local and state officials cheered that decision, they remained cautious of the BLM’s management plan. The land use plan sets restrictions in areas identified as sage grouse habitat, including preventing new leases for oil, gas or geothermal development within one mile of an active mating area, known as a lek.
County officials, and others at the local and state level, have long been concerned over the impacts on oil and gas development, ranching and other land uses resulting from what those officials view as broad conservation measures. Instead, they have argued for a more localized approach.
Jankovsky pointed to the plan adopted by Garfield County, which he said was designed to protect the bird while allowing for economic development viewed as vital to the county, as an example of conservation at the local level.
If AGNC is successful in obtaining the grant, the goal would be to coordinate with CPW so that the state and local governments are on the same page when it comes to sage-grouse habitat, Petersen said.
While CPW has expressed interest in the process, Ver Steeg cautioned that mapping is just a starting point in the broader conversation — one that is driven by policy objectives.
“It’s much more than just taking data and making a new map. You have to make conscious policy decisions.”
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