Grand County launches own study to check sage-grouse habitat

Leia Larsen
Male sage grouse compete for the attention of hens on a lek in the Williams Fork area between Parshall and Kremmling in this April 2012 file photo.
Byron Hetzler/ | Sky-Hi News

A native ground-dwelling bird is causing a heap of complications in northwest Colorado.

The greater sage-grouse calls 11 Western states home, including portions of Colorado and Grand County. But the bird’s habitat has come under threat with increasing development, territory fragmentation and oil and gas exploration.

To avoid listing the bird as an endangered species, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages 52 percent of the greater sage-grouse national lands, has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other agencies on environmental impact statements recommending ways to protect the birds. But Grand County commissioners have taken issues with the study’s delineation of habitat in the area.

“When the draft came out, there were what we call the ‘red blobs,’ which included the entire part of west Grand County,” said county manager Lurline Underbrink Curran.

“When the (environmental impact study) draft came out, there were what we call the ‘red blobs,’ which included the entire part of west Grand County.”
Grand County Manager Lurline Underbink Curran

The “red blobs” are areas Colorado Parks and Wildlife determined to be preliminary priority habitat for the bird, which the study distinguished on maps using the color red. In Grand County, the preliminary priority habitat stretches west from Hot Sulphur Springs to Kremmling, then runs north along Highway 40 and south along Highway 9.

“The town of Kremmling was included … areas you know can’t be prime sage-grouse habitat because people live there,” Underbrink Curran said. “So we wanted those things more defined.”

But according to Michelle Cowardin, a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Kremmling has always been excluded from delineation of the bird’s occupied range.

“We’ve always clipped out the town of Kremmling,” she said. “Even over the past few years, the town has grown, and we’ve modified the area to clip out those sections of town.”

As the local wildlife authority, BLM charged Colorado Parks and Wildlife with mapping sage-grouse data, which it analyzed in the environmental impact study. The BLM and U.S. Forest service only manage public lands. Even if the study finds impacts elsewhere, the study can’t make decisions that apply to private lands.

Still, local ranchers have questioned why private lands were included in habitat mapping in the first place if they aren’t supposed to be included in regulations.

“Obviously, the grouse don’t know whether land is public or private,” said Erin Jones, a sage-grouse expert with the BLM Northwest District. “The BLM has no authority to regulate private land, nor do we have any desire to do so.”

Jones said much of the confusion may be coming from disturbance caps, which apply to both public and private lands.

Depending on which recommendation from environmental impact statement the BLM selects — or which combination of recommendations — public lands will be required to compensate for a certain percentage of habitat disturbance on private lands.

“In other words, the bird can only endure so much disturbance,” said Chris Joyner, public affairs specialist with the Northwest District Colorado BLM. “If disturbance is done on private land, then (the sage-grouse) is going to depend more on habitat on public land.”

BLM will then need to adjust the amount of disturbance allowed on public land, like grazing or oil and gas development, to compensate for lost habitat on private land.

“Whether it’s five miles away or right on the boundary of public land, we treat it all the same as disturbance in grouse habitat,” Jones said.

Commissioner Gary Bumgarner, who represents western portions of the county, worries those public land restrictions could hamper economic activities in the area, from grazing and mineral extraction on public lands to recreation industries like hunting and off-roading.

“When you look at a small area, well it doesn’t seem so bad,” he said. “But you have to put all the pieces together to determine long-term consequences.”

Bumgarner said his concern is that the bird could still become listed under the Endangered Species Act, despite efforts by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and local BLM officials to keep it off. He pointed to the controversy surrounding the Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. After the owl became protected as an endangered species, several logging communities took an economic hit and had to seek other sources of revenue, like tourism. If the greater sage-grouse becomes protected as an endangered species, Bumgarner said impacts could still spread to private landowners.

“To me, if it’s listed or managed that way, it’s at the top of the food chain, and everything else is effected negatively,” he said.

Grouse EIS

The environmental impact statement came out early in August. Federal agencies are taking public comment until November.

The county has determined it needs an independent study in order to make appropriate comment, a study that cost $40,000.

“It’s important to keep the species from being listed by doing what’s necessary to protect it, but not by a shotgun approach,” Underbrink Curran said.

The sage-grouse habitat was delineated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. While BLM manages habitat, Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages non-migratory wildlife in the state, which is why hunters apply to the agency for hunting licenses.

“They are the ones that know where the birds are and where the habitat is on the ground,” Jones said.

Still, several local government officials aren’t pleased with the extent of delineated habitat and its economic implications. Garfield County hired a private consultant to conduct an independent greater sage-grouse habitat study after it determined the environmental impact statement had disregarded state and local government, private landowners and economic implications to the oil and gas industry and livestock grazing.

Grand County commissioners retained the same consultant to prepare its independent study, which should be completed in the next few weeks, Underbrink Curran said.

According to Commissioner Bumgarner, draft maps from the private consultant reveal a habitat “much smaller” than that delineated by Colorado Parks and wildlife.

“I think that it’s probably going to be a delaying action,” he said. “If it makes any difference, only time tells on that.”

The county commissioners have tentatively scheduled a meeting with the consultant and ranch owners to discuss findings at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 1. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, along with the Middle Park Greater Sage-grouse Working Group, will be holding its own public hearing at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 2 at the CSU Extension Hall in Kremmling. The agency will provide further information about the sage grouse and the environmental impact statement. It will also take questions from the public.

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