Grand County gravel pit flies into sage grouse issues
April 12, 2009
As the Grand County Road and Bridge Department seeks permission to start a gravel-pit operation on 92.38 acres of property near the eastern finger of Williams Fork Reservoir, opposition may assert itself with fanned feathers and inflated bellies.
Greater sage grouse males, according to Colorado Division of Wildlife District Manager Mike Cosby, have been known to perform their strutting and booming courtships in that area.
For this reason, DOW officials are requesting that as part of the county’s special use permit for a new gravel pit poised to provide gravel in the area for the next 40 years, operations be held off two to three hours in the mornings from March 15 to May 15 when the birds are most active during spring mating season.
Male sage grouse have allegiances to certain breeding grounds, called leks, Crosby said, and early morning noise can disturb male birds’ elaborate displays designed to attract females.
Because the male birds emit plopping sounds from air sacs on their chests as part of their mating prance, the species very much depends on auditory senses for breeding.
The DOW has been keeping data on the sage grouse leks in question for 20 years, according to Wildlife Conservation Biologist Michelle Cowardin.
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Populations vary in that area, but the five-year average indicates there are about 23 males that return each year with three to five females for every male. One sage grouse hen hatches about eight eggs, but usually about five out of eight survive.
“There are enough cases locally where grouse have lost leks due to noise and traffic,” Cowardin told Grand County Planning Commissioners during the gravel pit special-use permit hearing last Wednesday.
But Road and Bridge Superintendent Ken Haynes and Assistant Superintendent Bill Clark testified that delaying truck traffic in the morning would impact county operations.
In the past, the county has worked with the DOW. Rather than open the county’s soon-to-be-closed-and-reclaimed CR 340 gravel pit at 7 a.m., it would open at 9:30 a.m. during greater sage grouse breeding seasons. The CR 340 pit is a gravel pit located just east of the CR 3 proposed pit, providing gravel for roads in the Williams Fork Valley.
The county would load trucks at night and park them at another location so in the morning they would not disturb leks. The trucks would then be refilled at a county pit in the Kremmling area until the Williams Fork pit could be opened.
“That takes away material from the Kremmling-area’s roads,” Haynes said, adding that hauling gravel from 20 miles away increases fuel costs, truck maintenance and slows production.
Accommodating sage grouse courtships takes up about two hours per day for 45 days of productivity, equating to about 10.35 miles of roads, Haynes and Clark said.
“We dont want them to be endangered either,” Haynes said. “But we have a responsibility to the county too.”
As the species teeters on the brink of federal protections, Crosby stressed the importance of the DOW and county continuing to work together to protect sage grouse habitats. “We don’t want to lose status of local control on these species,” he said, saying that a federal listing of the bird as endangered may mean even greater regulation.
“If it becomes an endangered species, it’s going to cost everybody a whole lot more,” pointed out planning commission member George Edwards.
Although a compromise has yet to be reached, before the planning commission unanimously approved the special use for the CR3 acreage ” now due to go before county commissioners ” the board added to permit conditions that it “strongly suggests Grand County work with the DOW to come to a compromise regarding the sage grouse leks.”
Haynes conceded that the county has compromised with the DOW in the past and can do so again. “We can make sure there’s a honeymoon hotel for sage grouse,” he said.
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