Sage grouse numbers have declined slowly in recent years, prompting conservation groups to have the federal government consider the bird for the endangered species list. If that happens, it could have tremendous economic impacts that could hurt Colorado and Moffat County specifically, according to elected officials.

Sage grouse numbers have declined slowly in recent years, prompting conservation groups to have the federal government consider the bird for the endangered species list. If that happens, it could have tremendous economic impacts that could hurt Colorado and Moffat County specifically, according to elected officials.

Sage grouse debate on forefront of Colorado issues

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— The greater sage grouse debate in Colorado is a big, multilayered issue, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Sage grouse numbers have declined slowly in recent years, prompting conservation groups to have the federal government consider the bird for the endangered species list. If that happens, it could have negative economic impacts on Colorado and Moffat County.

At a glance

11 states involved in sage grouse issue

Colorado

Wyoming

Utah

North Dakota

South Dakota

Montana

Idaho

Nevada

Oregon

Washington

California

10 Colorado counties affected by sage grouse debate, including grouse habitat percentage of county area

Moffat, 75 percent

Jackson, 40 percent

Rio Blanco, 14 percent

Routt, 19 percent

Grand, 21 percent

Garfield, 12 percent

Eagle, 7 percent

Larimer, 1 percent

Mesa, 0.7 percent

Summit, 1.4 percent

Source: Jeff Comstock, Moffat County natural resource director

The Bureau of Land Management in Colorado currently is evaluating the bird’s habitat to ensure that sage grouse continues to multiply so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the federal agency that administers the Endangered Species Act — doesn’t list the bird as endangered.

Yet counties across Colorado, including Moffat County, are concerned with the how BLM is going about its research. If BLM proposes extremely stringent restrictions, it could impact Colorado’s economy negatively, specifically as it pertains to agriculture, mineral rights and natural gas extraction.

If BLM, the government agency that controls public land, proposes sage grouse regulations that aren’t restrictive enough, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might put the bird on the endangered species list — an outcome that no one seems to want.

So how can Colorado, BLM, conservation groups and the federal government find a resolution that fits all constituents? That’s the question that Moffat County and nine other Colorado counties are trying to figure out.

Economic implications, timelines

Gov. John Hickenlooper was in Craig on Nov. 25 to visit with the community about a number of issues. After he spoke to a crowd of nearly 200 at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion, he moved into a private meeting with more than a dozen sage grouse stakeholders from across the state who expressed angst about how BLM and state officials are handling the issue.

Stakeholders requested two things of the governor: One was for Hickenlooper to assign a point person to handle the sage grouse issue, and the second was to draft a Colorado alternative for the BLM to include in its recommendation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

BLM is poised to draft sage grouse recommendations — or conservation measures — to fish and wildlife officials by September 2014, according to Northwest BLM District Manager Jim Cagney.

“That’s a really brisk timeline,” he said. “That’s really putting a lot of stress on the situation.”

To help facilitate the issue, Hickenlooper met both of those requests this week by assigning John Swartout as the point person, giving him the task of finding a Colorado alternative for BLM within a 45-day time period, said Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

Swartout will meet with Moffat County commissioners Monday night to discuss sage grouse.

“My job is to listen,” Swartout said. “The governor is interested in getting their input.”

The commissioners are happy that Hickenlooper listened to the stakeholders’ demands.

“I’m excited about it because it’s an opportunity to have our voices heard,” said Moffat County Commissioner Chuck Grobe. “The proof will be in the pudding.”

Now, the governor’s office and Swartout are in charge of finding a “balance with protecting the bird … in a way that protects the economy,” King said.

The economic impact for all 10 counties is huge, according to the stakeholders, the governor and BLM.

Moffat County in particular sits on billions of dollars of natural gas that could be negatively affected if sage grouse gets listed or if restrictions are too tight.

Specifically, Moffat County has nearly 73,000 billion cubic feet of natural gas throughout its region. That equates to $254 billion in reserve, which breaks down to $13 billion in tax revenue split between Moffat County School District, the college, the county, city of Craig and more, according to research compiled by the commissioners.

If all that natural gas were extracted — unlikely, but a point the county highlighted to outline the economic ramifications — it also would equal $16 billion in state taxes from royalties, the commissioners said.

Additionally, if that gas were drilled, it would create enough energy for 726 million homes for one year, also equal to 4,580 years of energy for Denver County homes, the research states.

Those numbers represent only one of 10 counties.

If the sage grouse becomes endangered, natural gas extraction will be impossible.

Every party involved, including BLM, knows that the economics of the situation are nothing to brush off lightly.

Proposed decision from BLM

On Dec. 2, concerning parties submitted sage grouse comments to BLM’s research on sage grouse. Cagney received 7,000 comments, he said.

Now, BLM has to go through those comments and draft a recommendation for the bird to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by September 2014. In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service will issue a proposed listing decision. In 2016, that decision will be finalized.

Swartout’s new position as the sage grouse point person and Hickenlooper’s new assignment for him to find a “Colorado alternative” to the issue will give BLM extra information to consider for its recommendation.

History of sage grouse controversy

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife previously determined that perhaps sage grouse should be considered for the endangered species list, yet it was going to preclude the listing because there were more important things to deal with, said Moffat County Natural Resource Director Jeff Comstock.

However, in 2011, the Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying that it should list sage grouse and that it can’t just defer it to another time.

A settlement occurred, stating that by 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must issue a final decision on whether sage grouse should be listed as an endangered species or not based on research.

Thus, the fish and wildlife service told BLM that it must look at sage grouse habitats on public lands and determine if the bird is in fact in danger of becoming extinct.

That’s when BLM took its role in researching the bird.

Private vs. public land, disturbance caps, bird population

BLM now is looking at disturbance caps for sage grouse, meaning the area in which the bird lives and how any sort of disturbance will harm its mating behaviors.

Private land owners and county officials are extremely concerned about those caps, which the BLM tentatively has set between 2 and 5 percent.

That means that “no more than 5 percent of a given grouse area can be disturbed,” Comstock said, noting that if private land owners are in range of that area, then their mineral rights are at risk of having no value — essentially making it difficult to reap the mineral benefits of that private land.

“Now that there’s minimal mineral value, he’s not going to be able to lease or sell his mineral rights,” Comstock said, specifically highlighting the property value of Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers, who owns a large chunk of land in the county.

“The plans they have out there now kills our economy,” Mathers said.

The commissioners want BLM instead to focus on the population numbers of the bird, which is in the hundreds of thousands across the nation.

“Our birds (in Moffat County) are not decreasing. We have proof of that,” Comstock said. “We’re out there saying that there’s a public taking here. They’re taking rights away from people.”

King said that he and the governor’s office want to find a resolution that fits everyone.

“There’s no question that we’re aware of those implications,” King said. “One thing that we’re going to do on the Colorado side is we’re going to adjust the disturbance cap, and I think we’ll probably ask that population absolutely be considered in addition to the habitat.”

The issue goes beyond Colorado and Moffat County. Colorado is one of 11 Western states that have a stake in the sage grouse issue. Hickenlooper is the chair of the Western Governors’ Association, and he will meet with the group in Las Vegas next week to discuss sage grouse in addition to other issues.

Moffat County officials said they are “cautiously optimistic” about Hickenlooper finding a good solution to the issue, Comstock said.

Noelle Leavitt Riley can be reached at 970-875-1790 or nriley@CraigDailyPress.com.

Comments

Fred Duckels 8 months, 3 weeks ago

This is a totally manufactured crisis and it amazes me that so many dignify this subject by looking for a solution and playing the game. Notice how many states that the sage grouse is indigenous to? Covers a lot of territory, by design, in order to thwart resource extraction and anything else that our lefty overseers deem not in their best interests. This is our spotted owl, our snail darter, our humpback chub, and our bald eagle rolled into one. Notice the same folks have essentially put a bounty on eagles with a thirty year open season as long as you are using the favored windmill, another equally hypocritical boondoggle. Elections do have consequences but you never hear that term anymore now that the lefties are the proud owners of Obamacare. The sage grouse is a meaningless pawn and it is sad that so many are associating with this farce for personal gain.

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mark hartless 8 months, 3 weeks ago

No mention of the Bald Eagles and other species that are being killed in mid-air by windmills. Don't we need to do something about those destructive windmills??

If they were being killed by oil rigs though...

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Harvey Lyon 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Actually Mark.......the Fed, just last week, said killing bald eagles and other large birds, as part of renewable energy.....is OKAY.....as long as you have a plan to minimize it in the long run. The new Fed law is in effect immediately and cancels the Fish and Wildlife Service's fines of the Wyoming Wind Farms that have tallied about 100 Bald Eagles thus far in 2013.

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john bailey 8 months, 3 weeks ago

whats few dead bald eagles. uncle fed knows best......now that's a jackwagon...~;0)

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jerry carlton 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Natural gas is in trouble. Get going on cultivating MMJ. That is where the growth is. Especially since dogs are getting high now and the dog population of Routt County outnumbers people, cows and Sage Grouse combined.

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Dan Kuechenmeister 8 months, 3 weeks ago

From the AP yesterday and a link to the article is attached. "US to Allow Eagle Deaths _ to Aid Wind Power WASHINGTON December 6, 2013 (AP) By DINA CAPPIELLO Associated Press Associated Press Under pressure from the wind-power industry, the Obama administration said Friday it will allow companies to kill or injure eagles without the fear of prosecution for up to three decades.

The new rule is designed to address environmental consequences that stand in the way of the nation's wind energy rush: the dozens of bald and golden eagles being killed each year by the giant, spinning blades of wind turbines.

An investigation by The Associated Press earlier this year documented the illegal killing of eagles around wind farms, the Obama administration's reluctance to prosecute such cases and its willingness to help keep the scope of the eagle deaths secret. President Barack Obama has championed the pollution-free energy, nearly doubling America's wind power in his first term as a way to tackle global warming.

But all energy has costs, and the administration has been forced to accept the not-so-green sides of green energy as a means to an end." http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/govt-extend-authorizations-eagle-deaths-21122705

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mark hartless 8 months, 3 weeks ago

I guess 100 bald eagles/yr/state isn't a problem if you're spinning windmills for your religion.

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Rob Douglas 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Obama to allow eagle deaths by turbines at wind farms http://www.denverpost.com/politics/ci_24674239/obama-allow-eagle-deaths-by-turbines-at-wind#

WASHINGTON — Under pressure from the wind-power industry, the Obama administration said Friday it will allow companies to kill or injure eagles without the fear of prosecution for up to three decades.

The new rule is designed to address environmental consequences that stand in the way of the nation's wind energy rush: the dozens of bald and golden eagles killed each year by the giant, spinning blades of wind turbines.

An investigation by The Associated Press earlier this year documented the illegal killing of eagles around wind farms, the Obama administration's reluctance to prosecute such cases and its willingness to help keep the scope of the eagle deaths secret. President Barack Obama has championed the pollution-free energy, nearly doubling America's wind power in his first term.

But all energy has costs, and the administration has been forced to accept the not-so-green sides of green energy.

Another AP investigation recently showed that corn-based ethanol blended into the nation's gasoline has proved more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and worse than the government acknowledges.

These examples highlight Obama's willingness to accept environmental trade-offs — pollution, loss of conservation land and the deaths of eagles — in hopes that green energy will help fight global warming.

The regulation published Friday was not subjected to a full environmental review because the administration classified it as an administrative change.

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mark hartless 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Come to think of it... Wasn't it the religious environmentalists that insisted on banning DDT because it was killing eagles? The inability to use DDT causes untolled human deaths to this day, but we are told that it's worth it to save the eagles.

Didn't environmentalists insist on scrubbers on coal-fired power plants because acid rain was harming eagle eggs?WE put those scrubbers on because it was important to protect this species, no?

Why are they not up in arms about the destructive nature of windmills? Why are we not shutting them all down untill we can run them without killing innocent creatures???

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rhys jones 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Good thing it's not pot-eating dogs which are dying, otherwise this would be part of the leftie plot to destroy America. Might be anyway. My God, think of the kids. Someone else for a change. Our FUTURE, the cute little vermin.

If not you -- who? And if not now -- when?

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Scott Wedel 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Because windmills are not decimating the population of wild eagles. Yes, the wind turbines kill some eagles, but they are pretty sure far more are killed by other means. So it would be unfair to punish the wind industry because more of their eagle kills are detected. The new rules requires studying the eagle population and determining the impact of windmills. Power lines kill eagles, but that hasn't meant shutting down overhead power lines. Instead raised perches are often installed allowing an eagle to land atop a power pole without being electrocuted.

DDT is a very nasty chemical that caused serious environmental harm. No credible person is suggesting it should be heavily used as it was before it was banned. DDT was banned worldwide for use in agriculture, but remains legal for fighting insect carried diseases.

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rhys jones 8 months, 3 weeks ago

Again Oz fails to recognize humor in its higher form -- did someone say "obtuse?" -- understandable, when one observes his lame attempt at such, every couple of years or so. They must teach humor after sentence structure, out there in Cali.

Lighten up. dude. You take yourself WAY too seriously.

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mark hartless 8 months, 3 weeks ago

I wonder which power source results in more bird deaths per megawatt- wind or oil or coal?

Regarding the "new rules": Why not the same treatment for the Keystone Pipeline? Build it and THEN require a study about it's impacts?

Double Standards on green energy vs fossil fuels abound.

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rhys jones 8 months, 3 weeks ago

You're right, Mark, energy subsidies, tax breaks, and selective enforcement of environmental regulations seem tilted in favor of "renewable" energies, at the great expense of the public.

I just shake my head, wondering what's the Big Plan... Dad was into power generation, most of his career, and to his death, he insisted that all the renewables combined -- wind, solar, hydro -- are but a drop in the pond to our total consumption. Coal is where it's at, natural gas, and nuclear is the future.

As long as we're throwing government (likely Chinese) bucks at an albatross... I'd like to see some thrown at wave action; the tides keep coming, if some genius could design a one-way rotor... and geothermal; there's a lot of heat, not too far down, relatively speaking.

There's a LOT of nuclear, on the drawing boards, already approved, worldwide. Ground-up coal-fired and natural gas galore, not just in Canada, but everywhere -- China, India, Southeast Asia, Europe... retrofits, scrubbers and precipitators, on the old coal burners, bring them up to EPA, where we can enforce it anyway...

Yeah, this wind stuff is still a toy, and get your thumb in that pie, if you can!!

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Fred Duckels 8 months, 3 weeks ago

In this article we see how everyone is looking out for number one and showing concern and working to solve this hoax as if it really existed. The Sierra Club/EPA is way out in front and we are breaking our necks to appease them before they declare the grouse an endangered species which they may not be able to do. In the meantime they have won the war without firing a shot as we are falling for the hoax. Their threat of lawsuits brings most entities and bureaucrats to heel for fear of the entanglement. The lefties seem to be AWOL on this subject!

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Fred Duckels 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Much to my surprise awhile back the lefties came out and announced that they saw no reason to retain the eagle on the endangered species list. This action caused me to scratch my head in disbelief. Now I can see the reason, as they are always on the offense, and they knew that the beloved windmills would be killing an endangered species, and that would be awkward. Thus it came down to windmills or eagles and since the eagles were only a political tool we can see the results. Enter the sage grouse which is the next political tool of choice, and this is how they are able to dodge the bullet. The dept. of wildlife and fisheries came out yesterday and stated that the effort to save this species was far from adequate and the plot thickens. Now if the lefties can stop energy extraction then this leaves windmills etc. winning by default. What a surprise!

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mark hartless 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Heck Fred, you might have nailed it...

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John Weibel 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Too bad they don't take survey's of predators in the area. Had about 200 sage grouse in an alfalfa field, there was a lek just across the driveway then the bobcats moved in and I failed to see the grouse in the numbers that used to abound. Unfortunately, the reductionist thinking of most fails to recognize the complexity of systems and they want to take advantage of the perceived crisis.

More predators will bring about less prey. The cows, roads and rigs have little to no impact - the largest component is the number of things that like to eat them. Cows will provide dung for the bugs as do the elk, deep and antelope. The grouse like the bugs in the dung.

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