High-ranking federal officials confer with Northwest Colorado leaders on fate of pivotal sage grouse | SteamboatToday.com

High-ranking federal officials confer with Northwest Colorado leaders on fate of pivotal sage grouse

— Routt County was represented this week by commissioners Steve Ivancie and Tim Corrigan at what could prove to have been a pivotal meeting in Moffat County with federal officials, including Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, about the endangered status of the greater sage grouse.

It was a meeting that took place with the awareness that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is under a court mandate to decide by 2015 whether to place the sage grouse on the endangered species list. It is a decision fraught with economic consequences, including putting billions of dollars in mineral resources off limits, according to a recent Denver Post article based on reporting by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

It also was a meeting that Jewell's staff barred a Craig newspaper reporter from attending, but one that Ivancie said was nonetheless very positive in its tone and in the acknowledgement that the local stewards of private land can contribute much to improving the health of threatened sage grouse populations.

"I was impressed that (Gov. John Hickenlooper) was able to get the secretary, and (high-ranking representatives of) the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife out there." Ivancie said Friday. "What I took away from the meeting was that, No. 1, the secretary was extremely impressed with the efforts of landowners and values the insight of the local people who have spent their whole lives out here and have a lot to instruct when it comes to this species."

Routt County officials posted public notices about the gathering 24 hours in advance at several locations in the courthouse to ensure that the presence of the two commissioners, representing a quorum, did not violate the state's sunshine, or open meetings law.

Reporter Erin Fenner, who works for the Craig Daily Press, was allowed to accompany the federal delegation Tuesday on a tour of a local ranch where steps are being taken to protect the grouse. However, she was twice turned away from a roundtable conversation later in the day at the Craig American Legion Hall, where members of the broader public also were in attendance. A media attorney consulting with the Daily Press later issued the opinion that no open meeting law violation had taken place.

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Ivancie said he assumed the press was in attendance at the meeting and was unaware that Fenner had been denied access.

"There was a photographer there and I all but figured the press was there," Ivancie said. "We knew the two of us were going there so we posted it. In hindsight, it would have been to the organizers' benefit to have press there. It was very respectful, and positive. The (federal officials) were very forthcoming and open to suggestions and a lot of good, substantive issues were brought out. It was the governor's meeting and the secretary's meeting and in all respect, I'm going to defer."

The health of grouse populations in Northwest Colorado has significant implications for the future of agriculture, energy development, new road construction and motorized recreation in the high sagebrush plains of Northwest Colorado where it once flourished, Ivancie said.

Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, who did not attend Tuesday's meeting, said human livelihoods could be affected if collaborative efforts to protect the sage grouse aren't successful.

"The main objective isn't so much keeping the grouse off the endangered list, as it is to try to have a healthy bird population," Monger said. "That is what our ultimate objective should be, and that will create the situation of not having them listed," as endangered species.

One of the things that came out at the meeting with Jewell, Ivancie said, is that government agencies, local governments and private interests, including landowners, can come up with a variety of approaches to protecting the critical habitat of the grouse instead of just one prescription that might be mandated by Fish & Wildlife.

Habitat exchanges, that offset impacts in one area, in another, are among those methods, Ivancie said.

Fish & Wildlife reported in March 2013 it would reward landowners in Southern Wyoming who implement conservation measures to help the grouse with regulatory assurances concerning land use restrictions that might otherwise apply to them should the grouse become protected under the endangered species act.

But there could be very real consequences, Monger said, if the sage grouse is added to the formal list of endangered species in 2015. That's when a court order requires U.S. Fish & Wildlife to make a determination.

One measure that is being considered by the federal government to protect grouse habitat, he said, is placing caps on what percentage of total acres of grouse habitat within a region may be disturbed by human activity. And that cap could include pre-existing disturbances from agriculture or energy extraction, for example.

"We have the potential for having a 5 percent disturbance cap," Monger said, but no one fully understands how close Routt County might already be to the cap.

"In our county, you take off most of the U.S. Forest Service lands because they aren't habitat anyway. If there's a 5 percent cap on the remaining lands, there's a potential we'd have no further economic development until the bird gets healthier and comes off the list," Monger concluded.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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