County study defines grouse ‘red blobs’

Leia Larsen

It seems county, government and local private landowners are slowly finding common ground in understanding greater sage-grouse habitat.

All stakeholders are united under a common goal ­— keeping the land-dwelling bird off the federal Endangered Species Act list.

To better understand the bird’s patterns and develop a habitat management plan, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service partnered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to map habitat throughout Colorado as part of an Environmental Impact Statement. Greater sage-grouse habitat has come under threat throughout the West in recent years, and extends into Grand County.

After Colorado Parks and Wildlife used vegetation data to map greater sage-grouse priority habitat, Grand County spent $40,000 on its own independent study. Although findings yielded similar results, commissioners are calling it money well spent.

“Everyone was pretty impressed with the work our consultant did,” Commissioner Merrit Linke said in a phone interview. “He was thorough, knowledgeable, and had the answers to questions people had.”

In the Environmental Impact Statement, Colorado Parks and Wildlife identified a large area of habitat in west Grand County, whose economy depends heavily on agriculture. If the greater sage-grouse does become listed as an endangered species, commissioners and local property owners worry it could impact local livelihoods.

The bird’s priority habitat area, distinguished on the Environmental Impact Statement maps by the color red, have been called the “red blobs” by county officials.

After speaking to other western Colorado counties about their concerns, Grand County commissioners retained Eric Petterson, senior biologist with URS Consultants, to delineate greater sage-grouse habitat on a finer scale. He presented findings at a commissioners’ meeting on Oct. 1.

“Our study is more accurate at a local level versus Colorado Parks and Widlife,” Petterson said. “Their mapping was done at a scale when they’re mapping multiple counties at one time.”

Parks and Wildlife worked on a large northwest Colorado regional scale to create its map. Because they had so much ground to cover, Parks and Wildlife used a larger mapping scale, with minimum mapping units of 1 kilometer, Petersen said.

Working at a smaller county level, Petterson used the same data but reduced his units to 20 meters, or 2 percent of Parks and Wildlife’s scale. Just as smaller pixels produce a more detailed digital image, Petterson’s smaller scale produced a map with finer detail of the greater sage-grouse habitat.

Petterson also took into account variables beyond vegetation, like slope and elevation. While his findings produced a more detailed picture, Petterson said overall results are similar to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife study.

“It’s still very much a red blob,” Petterson told commissioners at the meeting.

But Petterson would like to push state Parks and Wildlife officials to change their definition of what those “red blobs” mean.

“By their own recognition … there are areas of non-habitat captured,” he said. “Let’s call these ‘consultation areas,’ because in reality that’s what they are, they’re meant to trigger a level of consultation with CPW or BLM.”

A shift in terminology won’t necessarily change federal decisions on greater sage-grouse management. But that shift could help assuage the fears of private landowners, who worry a plotted “priority habitat” on their property represents a red mark of restriction.

By calling them “consultation areas,” property owners might feel like they have an opportunity to discuss management.

“That’s where a lot of consternation has come with the red blob maps,” said Zach Perdue, a consultant who helped Petterson with mapping. “We want to be at the table to make sure real, good habitat are being protected.”

With the Environmental Impact Statement already issued, a change in terminology is unlikely. But the process does invite private stakeholders to take a “seat at the table” and discuss their concerns during the 90-day public comment period, which is open until mid-November.

Michelle Cowardin, a biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Hot Sulphur Springs office, acknowledges the Environmental Impact Statement’s maps and modeling have caused some frustration at the county level. She also said Petterson has misrepresented some of her division’s modeling strategies in creating the maps, including the time-frame in which models were produced.

“It would be good to clear that up with commissioners so they better understand our data,” Cowardin said.

At over 1,000 pages, the Environmental Impact is tedious to review and daunting to understand. Cowardin and other Parks and Wildlife officials have tried to clear up confusion with the public by issuing fact sheets and holding public informational sessions. A local session held in Kremmling on Oct. 2 attracted only about 10 attendees. It didn’t yield many questions or comments.

“I’m not too surprised there wasn’t a lot of interaction. People haven’t really looked at (the Environmental Impact Statement), because it’s such a large document BLM put out,” Cowardin said. “So the meeting’s purpose was to get people engaged to look at it.”

The document is available through the Bureau of Land Management website. Cowardin and other Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are available to answer questions and take comment on the study both during and after the federal shutdown, which has furloughed employees at the Bureau of Land Management. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Hot Sulphur Springs office can be reached at 346 Grand County Road 362 or 970-725-6200.

“We want folks to know BLM has the document out there,” Cowardin said. “The more people who comment, the better the final product will be.”

Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.