Sage grouse protection plan finalized

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— For decades, the Herolds have monitored the greater sage grouse population on their ranch near Yampa.

The greatest numbers of the small, chicken-like birds were present in the 1940s and '50s. In 1985, when a harsh winter caused the bird population to drop drastically, Carl Herold and his wife, Rita, stopped letting people hunt them on their land.

With years of drought and increasing predation, the population has not had a chance to rebound, Rita Herold said. Today, the Herolds have just a few sage grouse mating grounds, called leks, on their property.

In the past few years, the couple has been keeping an especially close eye on the birds and the federal action that could put them on the endangered species list.

For ranchers such as the Herolds, who graze cattle in sage grouse habitat, an endangered species listing could be costly if it restricts where they can graze.

Research has not shown that cattle grazing negatively affects grouse population and its habitat, Carl Herold said. But if the bird is listed and restrictions are put in place, it could threaten another endangered species in Routt County -- the traditional rancher, he said.

"If I can't survive, that is not going to help the grouse. There is only one alternative and that is to sell to the highest bidder -- and the highest bidder is the developer," he said.

For the past six years, Carl Herold has been part of a working group, made up of stakeholders from South Routt and northern Eagle counties, that has developed a plan to help protect the greater sage grouse.

That plan was finalized Wednesday night during a celebratory meeting at the State Bridge Lodge. The meeting brought together leaders of government agencies, electric and utility companies, land owners, nonprofit environmental organizations, recreational users and landowners.

The plan lists steps each stakeholder can take to help foster a better chance for the bird's survival.

John Toolen of the Colorado Division of Wildlife said the goal of the plan is to keep the area's sage grouse population viable for the long term.

"Everybody here, whatever group they represent, has a keen interest in wanting to keep the bird in the area. And we do want to keep it from getting listed, because life becomes way more complicated when that happens," Toolen said.

The greater sage grouse population in South Routt and northern Eagle is between 304 and 489 birds. The DOW has been doing counts for almost 50 years. The highest lek count in South Routt was 242 in 1963. In 2004, the count was 81, the lowest in five years.

The greater sage grouse are brownish-gray birds with black bellies and underthroats. The male birds have white breasts and undertail coverts. During mating season, the males attract the females to the leks with spectacular mating dances in which they display their neck plumes.

The population covers 11 western states and two Canadian provinces.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received multiple petitions to list the grouse as a threatened or endangered species and, in April, the agency began that process.

At Wednesday's meeting, U.S. Fish and Wildlife representative Al Pfister said the agency would make a decision by the end of December about whether the bird is a candidate for listing.

If the bird is a candidate for listing, it will be given a prioritization number, Pfister said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have enough money for all the candidates to be listed as endangered species and has a ranking system to determine the next to be listed.

"We might not act on it for a while or at anytime in the future," Pfister said.

The nearby Gunnison sage grouse, which is smaller than the greater sage grouse, has been listed as a "species of special concern" in Colorado and given a regional No. 2 ranking to be added to the endangered species list.

Housing and human development, livestock grazing, water diversion projects and increased deer and elk populations all have contributed to the loss of habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse.

For the greater sage grouse, more than 70 working groups have been in place across the West working to improve sage grouse habitat and increase the numbers.

"For the greater sager grouse, the more of these types of plans, the more they are implemented, the greater the chance the species won't be listed," Pfister said.

In 1995, the DOW signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop local conservation plans for species not yet listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Local stakeholders first started working on a plan in 1998, but by 2000 participation in the group had dwindled and a consensus had not been reached.

In the spring of 2003, the group reconvened and it brought in mediator Cathy Neelan. Less than 18 months later, a plan was in place.

"I think the biggest thing we had to deal with was every time we took up an issue, people got defensive," Toolen said. "Finally, we got around that. There are so many things going on, you can't single out any one thing. You don't have to assign blame."

The plan states that identifying the possible factors that could be responsible for the increase or decrease in sage grouse numbers is easy, determining and assigning the relative significance to them is far more difficult.

Vegetation succession, weather, predations, habitat changes, fragmentation of land, land treatments and grazing practices all have contributed to the change in population, the plan states.

Getting landowners to sign on was particularly important in the South Routt area, where 79 percent of the land in the conservation plan is privately owned. In northern Eagle County, 65 percent of the land belongs to the Bureau of Land Management.

The plan calls for developing a list of best management practices for sage grouse habitat and encourages landowners and land managers to use the practices.

It also calls for seeding areas that are poor quality nesting habitats.

The plan encourages incentives for landowners to avoid, minimize or mitigate the loss of habitat. If habitat is lost through development, the developers must protect, enhance or restore sage grouse habitat elsewhere.

For grazing areas, the plan suggests developing small watering systems away from riparian areas on private and public lands to better disperse livestock and wildlife and to manage wildlife movement through the use of salt or minerals to benefit sage grouse.

It also encourages local, state and federal policy makers to consider the importance of the economic viability of ranching in providing sage grouse habitat and to do more research on its impacts.

"Everybody worked together to come up with a plan, and I think it is good. I think it is as good as we could do," Carl Herold said.

During Wednesday's meeting, Routt County Commissioner Dan Ellison said the commissioners will consider signing a resolution supporting the plan Tuesday.

"If we had a proposal for land use changing to urban use areas for sage grouse, we would probably pay much attention to it. Talking about agricultural usage, that is a different matter," he said

Landowners can sign onto the plan at the Yampa Town Hall and the Routt County Extension Office at the Routt County Courthouse. Copies of the plan are available at the DOW offices in Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs.

About 50 landowners are expected to sign the plan, which is strictly voluntary and does not come with enforcement.

"All it says is you're on board," Toolen told landowners Wednesday.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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