Sage grouse review prioritizes state input, economic, energy concerns
The swing of the political pendulum has thrust the greater sage grouse back in the national spotlight this year, as federal agencies reassess the hard-won, Obama-era sage grouse protection plans.
The plans were finalized by the Bureau of Land Management in 2015 after years of collaboration, but Northwest Colorado officials are hopeful a review by the U.S. Department of Interior could edge the balance toward allowing for more future energy development.
“The birds are still a priority for us, but our economic future here in Moffat County pretty much lies in how this sage grouse plan is implemented, not just regarding oil and gas, but grazing, recreation, hunting,” said Moffat County Commissioner Don Cook. “It affects everything that we do with our natural resources.”
Moffat County is home to about 70 percent of Colorado’s sage grouse population, and nearly 40 percent of the county’s surface lands are impacted by the BLM’s sage grouse plans.
Though conservationists are disappointed to see years of hard work cast into uncertainty by the federal review, many stakeholders, including Moffat County officials, feel the finalized plans didn’t reflect their input.
“I’m a lot more hopeful if we do this correctly now,” Cook said. “The states had their plans, and when they got to Washington, the BLM under Secretary (Sally) Jewell just changed them. They imposed things on all the states that were not part of the local plans.”
The BLM announced Oct. 5 it is exploring potential amendments to the plans and seeking public input, with the aim of increasing collaboration with states. Economic development and energy development are two other big priorities, said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke when he announced a review of the plans this summer.
Nobody seems to know exactly where the Interior Department is headed with possible changes, but state officials are optimistic.
“I’ve chosen to look at this as an opportunity to get it right,” said John Swartout, a senior policy advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was also frustrated with federal changes to Colorado’s state sage grouse plans in 2015.
Swartout would like to see Colorado’s specific needs better reflected in the plans, and he and stakeholders — from county governments to conservationists — are back at the table discussing options.
“We’re still working together really effectively; that’s our strength,” Swartout said.
If stakeholders seek an amendment to the plans, it could take several more years for a new environmental assessment or impact statement to be completed, something most seem eager to avoid.
“I’m disappointed that they would potentially throw away years and years of work,” said Luke Schafer, West Slope Advocacy Director for Conservation Colorado. “My main concern in this is … we’re seeing this political pendulum swing back and forth, and meanwhile, there’s no work going on on the ground.”
State and local officials in Colorado are still trying to come to an agreement on a map of sage grouse populations that will determine how and where the BLM plan is implemented.
“The mapping guides our decision-making for where our highest value investments can be made,” Swartout said, as well as where regulations are applied for priority habitat versus general habitat.
The outcome of a lawsuit filed in May against the Interior by Moffat, Garfield, Rio Blanco and Jackson counties also remains to be seen. The claims in the lawsuit — that local input was overridden and the resulting regulations could cripple local economies — are reflected in the new course Zinke is charting for the agency.
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