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Colorado wary of greater sage-grouse listing

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Greater sage-grouse. Photo courtesy USFWS.

State officials want to balance fossil fuel development with wildlife conservation

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Despite the fact fossil fuel development is devastating wildlife habitat in northwest Colorado, state officials are pressing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep greater sage-grouse off the endangered species list.

In a press release, Gov. John Hickenlooper‘s office described  oil and gas drilling as “vibrant economic activities,” and touted voluntary conservation activities shaped by local stakeholders as an alternative to a federal conservation plan.

“Given the unique landscapes and natural resources in Colorado, a Colorado-based solution is more practical that one handed down by the federal government,” Hickenlooper said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Greater sage-grouse birds have disappeared from half of their former range in the Intermountain West. 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.

State officials hope their comments will “help provide protection of species while not infringing on existing economic activities such as grazing, oil and gas production, and community development.”

The state plan, developed in 2008, included a range of voluntary efforts to protect habitat so as to promote thriving populations in the northwest region of Colorado. The State is working with all interests to assess how well these conservation efforts are working and how they can be improved, but wildlife conservation advocates may be skeptical of any plan that doesn’t include measurable recovery and conservation goals.

“We want to see an effective plan that safeguards the best remaining habitat and is based on science and not politics,” Rocky Mountain Wild conservation biologist Megan Mueller said last summer after the BLM released a draft conservation plan.

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.

Still, state-driven efforts have yielded significant results:

  • Colorado has spent more than $40 million since 2000 on GSG conservation efforts, including planning, land protection, monitoring and habitat restoration

  • Since 2004, DNR has protected more than 74,000 acres of GSG habitat (primarily via conservation easements). Another 24,000 acres are managed by other conservation organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy.

  • Habitat treatments, such as invasive plant removal, have been conducted on 50,000 acres.

  • Management plans exist on 273,000 acres, including wildlife mitigation plans, grazing plans, ranch management plans and habitat suitability plans.

  • The State submitted the “Colorado Package” to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) – an update to the 2008 GSG Conservation Plan, developed with input from all 25 “lead responsible agencies.”

  • Representatives from the Governor’s Office have participated in hundreds of community and stakeholders meetings about the GSG in the past nearly three years.

  • An ongoing synthesis report includes analysis of wildlife protection regulations for oil and gas operators, efforts from northwest counties to update or revise land use plans, summary and analysis of grazing practices and evaluation of State Land Board lands for habitat suitability.

  • The State is driving for the right balance, one that provides robust protections for the GSG without the need for a federal listing while ensuring that northwest Colorado communities maintain economic health and flexibility. The State will continue working with our federal partners toward this outcome.

 

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