Hayden Two years ago, Rick Hoffman, a biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, had the opportunity to help gather representatives, state officials, ranchers, landowners, county leaders and local coal company players into one work group to draft and implement a plan to protect a bird in northwest Colorado.
In 1995, the Colombian sharp-tailed grouse was petitioned to be put on the endangered or threatened species list by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation.
To keep the grouse from being listed and to implement more local control of wildlife conservation efforts, the work group was formed.
"I was a little reluctant to begin with," Hoffman admitted. "I'm just a biologist."
Hoffman, a leading researcher of the sharp-tails, had never organized a group or held public meetings before. Also, he said, devising and implementing a conservation plan is a daunting task, especially with so many players involved.
But recently at the Hayden Town Hall, almost two years to the day after Hoffman hosted the first work group meeting, members of the sharp-tailed grouse group signed a conservation plan that is expected to help sustain and increase the population of the small bird in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.
"It was a fascinating get-together of a good cross-section of interested parties," work group member Ron Mcleod said.
The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Routt County, Moffat County, the Routt County Cattlemen, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Colorado State Land Board, the Nature Conservancy and private landowners all were represented in the work group and had equal say.
Mcleod owns land in Routt County where sharp-tailed grouse breed. He became involved with the group at its inception because he was concerned about the bird's habitat.
As he learned more about the issue, his concerns turned to the local ranchers who are his neighbors and lease his land. They could have been at risk of feeling the brunt of federal restrictions to protect the bird if it was listed as endangered. However, the work by the group nipped that problem in the bud. In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the sharp-tailed grouse and Hoffman said their effort on the conservation plan was a major reason for that.
With that incentive, the conservation plan now centralizes national efforts to protect and regenerate sharp-tailed grouse habitat throughout the country in Rio Blanco, Moffat and Routt counties, Hoffman said.
"This is the first local conservation plan for Colombian sharp-tailed grouse," he said.
It's fitting that northwest Colorado would be the first to have the plan. More than 100 years ago, the bird was found in 22 counties in the state. Now, Routt County and Moffat County and a small portion of Rio Blanco County are the only places wildlife officials have found sharp-tailed grouse. In the spring, 6,100 sharp-tails are expected to be in that tri-county area. After mating, that number will go up to 12,000 birds. About 95 percent of that population will live in Routt County and Moffat County.
Large populations of sharp-tails also use to exist in most open ranges of the West and Northwest regions of the United States. Recent studies found only small concentrations still exist in Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Today, most sharp-tails live in Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Canada.
The conversion of natural range land into intense agricultural uses, like a wheat field, as people moved west in the 1900s has been the primary cause of the birds' loss of habitat and dwindling numbers. In northwest Colorado, the sharp-tail's population has remained strong because most agricultural lands here are used for grazing cattle, which maintains the natural landscape for the bird, Hoffman said.
With the conservation plan finished, landowners, mining companies and county officials now have some direction for identifying the remaining habitat and protecting the bird, if they want to.
"Programs and money is available for landowners wanting to do good things for grouse," Hoffman said. "It's primarily voluntary. Nothing is mandatory."
The plan also details how sharp-tailed grouse will be managed on all public land. In addition, the document lists 23 issues that can cause the bird's population to decrease and has 250 conservation actions to address the issues. Furthermore, it has important information on where the birds are, what their habitat is and how big their population is.
Routt County Commissioner Dan Ellison attended the work group meetings and signed the plan for Routt County on Tuesday night.
For the county, the plan will help officials gain some direction when larger land projects are proposed.
"If we had someone file for a (cluster subdivision) we should be able to use this study to see if there are grouse leks," Ellison said.
Large gravel mine proposals also could see the county going to plan to identify leks.
Ellison also said he sees the conservation plan being instrumental for coal mining companies reclaiming displaced lands from mining operations.
To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail email@example.com