FRISCO — These days, the vast sagebrush ocean of the Intermountain West is under siege by drilling rigs, sprawling exurban development and, in some cases, poor grazing practices on public lands.
Altogether, those pressures have degraded habitat across big swaths of the landscape. The damage is reflected by the sharp decline in greater sage-grouse populations. The birds have disappeared from half of their former range and are a candidate for the endangered species list, likely to be designated as threatened or endangered.
The listing could come as soon as 2015 — unless federal land managers and local governments can agree on a conservation plan with enough safeguards to satisfy the biologists who will consider the listing.
The Bureau of Land Management, which administers much of the territory with key sage-grouse habitat, is working toward that goal in the west-wide National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Effort, and last week released a draft environmental study for northwestern Colorado for a 90-day comment period.
More than 1.7 million acres of Colorado’s Greater Sage-Grouse habitat are on BLM lands in the Northwest District — almost half of all greater sage-grouse habitat in Colorado.
“We are considering a wide-range of alternatives designed to preclude the need for listing of greater sage-grouse as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act,” said BLM Northwest District Manager Jim Cagney. “We have been working closely with our cooperating agencies to incorporate local expertise and information. Public involvement in reviewing this draft is the next important step.”
“The sage grouse is an important part of the web of life in the West,” said Rocky Mountain Wild conservation biologist Megan Mueller. “We have a responsibility to leave the world a better place for future generations and that means being good stewards of the land and protecting habitat for all wildlife.”
The plan includes four alternatives, one that makes no changes to sage-grouse management, one that includes conservation measures from the Sage-grouse National Technical Team Report, one that includes conservation measures proposed by conservation groups, and the BLM’s preferred alternative, which includes conservation measures the BLM developed with cooperating agencies.
Mueller said the preferred alternative is a step in the right direction, but may not include all the protective measures identified in the technical team report. Recent research suggests sage-grouse need large areas of protected habitat. If the BLM’s plan falls short, sage-grouse populations could continue to decline, she explained.
“We want to see an effective plan that safeguards the best remaining habitat and is based on science and not politics,” Mueller said. “We look forward to reviewing the plan and hope that BLM has made the changes wildlife biologists agree are necessary to restore sage-grouse before the bird needs to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.”
The Wilderness Society would like to see a final plan that protects large tracts of northwest Colorado from habitat fragmentation and industrial uses.
“Northwest Colorado’s famous wildlife habitat is facing death by a thousand cuts,” said Soren Jespersen, regional representative at The Wilderness Society. “This is an opportunity for BLM to take a more holistic view of the landscape of northwest Colorado to ensure that the special places and amazing wildlife resources that attract so many people to this region continue to drive our local economies into the future.”
“As the sage grouse goes, so goes the habitat of the sagebrush steppe,” Jespersen said. “We have to put strong protections in place now so our western heritage continues to thrive and so the hammer of the Endangered Species Act doesn’t come down on northwest Colorado.
“Real conservation measures need to be made to save the grouse in northwest Colorado,” said Wes McStay, a Moffat County rancher and member of BLM’s Northwest Colorado Resource Advisory Council. “My family has protected grouse habitat on our lands so the next generation can enjoy this wonderful bird. BLM needs to ensure that others are required to do the same on our public lands.”
In another sign that habitat fragmentation is degrading habitat, northwest Colorado’s mule deer herds have declined dramatically, from more than 100,000 down to about 43,000 animals, by some estimates.
This has resulted in less hunting tags being available, impacting state and local economies, according to Allan Reishus, a Craig, CO physician and avid sportsmen.
Wildlife-related activities are a major economic driver for rural Colorado, with hunting, fishing and wildlife watching generation over $3 billion a year in Colorado alone.
“The sagebrush sea isn’t just important for biodiversity, it’s important for our local communities,” Reishus said. “Thousands of sportsmen come to Moffat County every year, contributing roughly $35 million to our local economy. The sagebrush ecosystem provides crucial winter habitat to mule deer, elk and pronghorn in addition to sage grouse. That is why BLM must get this plan right,” he added.
According to the BLM, the preferred alternative reflects local adjustments to national management recommendations based on input from cooperating government agencies and the public.
The four alternatives are outlined in a BLM press release:
• Alternative A continues current management direction under existing planning documents for all five field offices involved in the planning effort, plus the Routt National Forest.
• Alternative B analyzes management actions outlined in the National Technical Team’s (NTT) report. Conservation measures under Alternative B are focused primarily on priority habitat areas that have the highest conservation value to maintaining or increasing Greater Sage-Grouse populations. These conservation measures include such protections as right-of-way exclusions and a fluid mineral leasing closure.
• Alternative C analyzes management recommendations submitted by conservation groups for protection and conservation of Greater Sage-Grouse and its habitat at the range-wide level. Conservation measures under Alternative C include creating an Area of Critical Environmental Concern that would include all preliminary priority habitat and a grazing closure over all designated habitat in the planning area.
• Alternative D, the sub-regional alternative, incorporates local adjustments to the NTT report, which were developed with cooperating agencies. The purpose is to provide a balanced level of protection, restoration, enhancement and use of resources and services to meet ongoing programs and land uses. Conservation measures under Alternative D are focused on both preliminary priority habitat and all designated habitat.
Comments can be submitted on the web:
• email: email@example.com
• fax: 970-244-3083
• mail: BLM – Greater Sage Grouse EIS, 2815 H Road, Grand Junction, CO, 81506
Comments need to be received by Nov. 14, 2013.
Copies of the Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse Draft RMP Amendment/Draft EIS are available at the Northwest Colorado District Office at the above address or on the website at: http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/BLM_Programs/wildlife/sage-grouse.html.
The BLM and U.S. Forest Service will issue separate Records of Decision by Sept. 30, 2014.
Public meetings will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in October at the following locations:
• Oct. 15 in Craig, at the Memorial Hospital at Craig, 750 Hospital Loop
• Oct. 17 in Silt, at the BLM Colorado River Valley Field Office, 2300 River Frontage Road
• Oct. 22 in Walden, at the Wattenburg Community Center, 682 County Road 42
• Oct. 24 in Lakewood, at the Lakewood Heritage Center, 801 S. Yarrow St.
More information about the public meetings will be announced in the coming weeks.
Filed under: biodiversity, BLM, endangered species, Environment, public lands, US Forest Service Tagged: | biodiversity, BLM, Bureau of Land management, Colorado, endangered species act, Greater sage-grouse, Intermountain West, public lands, Wilderness Society