Groups mounting fight of sage grouse proposal
Taking unified approach to sway federal officials
Times Staff Report
Originally published 2013-02-07
Local entities are beginning to circle the wagons concerning a proposed “endangered” listing of the Gunnison Sage-grouse — and that’s likely to mean a unified attempt to sway federal regulators from enacting their proposal.
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced a long-awaited plan to designate the bird with a status that affords the highest protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), in an attempt to avoid extinction. That’s despite years of efforts locally to avoid such an action.
In accordance with the proposal, FWS officials journeyed to Gunnison for a public meeting Jan. 23, and the visit also included discussions with county and other local leaders.
Rancher Lee Spann expressed his disappointment in the public meeting to the Gunnison Sage-grouse Strategic Committee on Tuesday, despite good community attendance.
“I thought the Fish and Wildlife Service was lacking in what they presented to the community,” he said. “People were disenthused.”
“I share that,” added Sue Navy, representative for High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA). “There was an opportunity, and it was missed, to really alleviate people’s concern, explain what people are feeling, and put them in a rational context instead of having fear.”
March 12 marks the end of a 60-day comment period over the proposal. A final determination on the listing is scheduled to be issued by Sept. 30.
Alongside the listing plan, FWS has also proposed the designation of what’s termed “critical habitat.” It’s those lands in the Gunnison Basin that local leaders fear could be most impacted, should the grouse become listed.
The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) is eying at least five small water projects in the Gunnison Basin — all of which are in critical habitat areas and would be adversely affected by FWS’ proposed rules.
“I certainly don’t want anyone to get the idea that the livestock implication is the only thing here,” said UGRWCD board member Ken Spann during a meeting of the district’s Projects Committee Jan. 25. He was referring to the potential water projects and other impacts as a result of listing.
For that reason, the UGRWCD’s Project Committee recommended to the group’s larger board that the district work closely with leaders from Gunnison County, the City of Gunnison, the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association and other stakeholders, concerning responses to FWS during the 60-day comment period.
Gunnison County Wildlife Conservation Coordinator Jim Cochran told the Projects Committee that county leaders are considering the expertise of outside consultants as a means of countering FWS’ proposal. He said that an updated Population Viability Assessment (PVA) may show that the bird isn’t likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future.
The City of Gunnison’s Community Development Director Steve Westbay told UGRWCD leaders that the city also is planning to piggy-back on Gunnison County’s comments. City Council in recent weeks has directed Westbay and City Manager Ken Coleman to take the lead with respect to the city’s direction.
Coleman said last week that city leaders have received mixed messages about what the possible listing could mean within municipal boundaries, but most recently indications from federal regulators have not been inspiring.
“We’ve been told by (FWS) staff that undeveloped areas within municipal boundaries would be impacted by this listing,” he said. “It appears we have no other recourse than to fight.”
To this point, however, not all local groups have opposed a federal listing of the grouse.
HCCA Water Director Jennifer Bock told UGRWCD leaders Jan. 25 that while the local environmental group has supported an ESA designation of the bird, they also support the agricultural community and would be opposed to outside intervention by other environmental organizations.
If those organizations are “making it tough for folks, we’d oppose that,” she said.
The strategic committee addressed their strategy for submitting comments at their Tuesday meeting. Agency officials expressed the need to limit comments based on each entity’s specific area of expertise in an attempt to avoid duplicative comments. They also discussed the importance of providing accurate facts and clarifying information that may have been misinterpreted by FWS and to provide any new information that may be relevant.
Westbay urged the committee not to succumb to political pressures and remain united. “I see the wedge being driven,” he observed. “I see the need to compartmentalize, but I’m disturbed by that fragmentation.”