Craig What might ease the tensions between sage grouse conservationists, private landowners and businesses is a concept needed in politics: collaboration.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper stopped in Moffat County on Tuesday to take part in such collaboration. Jewell came with the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the head of the Bureau of Land Management to tour the Bord Gulch Ranch, owned by Ray Owens. His ranch, nestled in the northwest corner of Colorado, is an example of how a private landowner can further a conservationist goal, Jewell said.
“Ray Owens is a model of the 21st-century Western rancher with his outstanding stewardship of this working landscape,” Jewell said in a press release. “He represents the spirit of partnership that can be replicated across the West as we develop landscape-level strategies to lessen the threats to the sage grouse and conserve its habitat.”
The governor also celebrated Owens' efforts in taking a completely new approach to conservation.
“I think we are creating a new model of how to preserve species,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re modeling for all the other ranchers and farmers in the West. There are solutions. This isn’t hopeless.”
The Bureau of Land Management is in the process of evaluating sage grouse habitat in Colorado and 10 other states. They need to present their recommendation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the federal agency evaluating the bird for the endangered species list — by September. The pressure is on federal departments to decide how much protection the birds need, how to regulate that protection and how to do so while not threatening the economy of areas near sage grouse habitats.
Moffat County is one of those areas. Seventy-five percent of the county is made up of land that would be affected by a sage grouse endangered species listing.
But while listing the bird as endangered is a possibility, the population is stable enough to likely avoid that list, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said.
“Endangered is always a possibility,” Ashe said. “The greater sage grouse is still in relatively good shape, so it would seem like an endangered determination absent some major catastrophe is probably not where we would head.”
But the birds still can be listed as a threatened species, which could come with regulations that affect private landowners and businesses.
Jewell reassured the attendees of the tour that the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service were in Colorado to get input from farmers and ranchers.
“People really respect and want to learn from the people who work the land,” Jewell said.
Hickenlooper praised the tour as an opportunity for high-level officials to meet and seek a solution with ranchers, farmers and leaders who understand the economic issues of the area.
“We have everybody that matters right here on this little hilltop," Hickenlooper said. "If you noticed: They listened."
Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers went on the tour as an elected official and as a lifelong rancher. He was encouraged by the conversations and ideas exchanged during the tour.
“It’s overwhelming to have this much power all in one setting,” Mathers said. “I’m so impressed with our governor.”
Mathers said he was optimistic they could work out a way to protect the sage grouse species while also protecting people’s livelihoods.
“It’s going to take everyone working to get them to keep the bird from getting listed,” he said. “We need multi-use on all these grounds.”
Following the tour, the crew of high-up officials led a meeting at the American Legion Clubhouse in Craig to talk more about sage grouse issues. More than 40 people attended, including all three Moffat County commissioners and other elected officials, but press was barred from the discussion.
“I just assumed it was a public meeting,” Mathers said.
But Jewell said it was closed.
“Secretary Jewell's office decided the meeting should be closed to press to help foster an open and frank discussion,” said Eric Brown, director of communications for Hickenlooper’s office.
Contact Erin Fenner at 970-875-1794 or efenner@CraigDailyPress.com.