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BLM weighs in on Gunnison sage grouse

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The Bureau of Land Management has weighed in on the Gunnison sage grouse (GSG) issue with a just-released rangewide Draft Resource Management Plan (DRMP) for what has also become known as "The Bird."

The public will have until Jan. 9 to submit comments on the DRMP. It covers GSG range across BLM-administered public lands in ten Colorado counties and one county in Utah. Staff and elected officials from those 11 counties have been working together with private landowners and conservation groups since 1995 in locally and privately funded projects to improve habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse and its prospects of survival.

The BLM draft plan was released in August. Agency personnel presented the plan at Delta, Gunnison and Dove Creek last month. The Delta session was held Oct. 19 at Bill Heddles Recreation Center. BLM personnel from several of the field offices with GSG populations or habitat in their jurisdictions attended. Delta County is home of critical habitat for the Crawford population of Gunnison sage grouse.

The survival status of GSG became a matter of federal concern in 2000 when it was cataloged as a separate species distinct from others, including the greater sage grouse which has far larger numbers and far greater range. The separate species status brought with it scrutiny by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The FWS decides which species get protected status under the Endangered Species Act.

Following GSG's designation as a separate species, the FWS refused on two occasions (in 2006 and 2010) to extend it protection under the Endangered Species Act. By 2010, the FWS had already lost one court challenge by pro-listing environmental groups. The agency was finally angled into a negotiated agreement which included GSG in a listing action with over 200 other species. In 2014, the FWS listed GSG as "threatened." However, in a bureaucratic nod to the decades of volunteer work and local spending by the 11-county working group, the FWS did not issue GSG its top tier "endangered" status.

It has been noted that almost every common human activity poses at some level a threat to GSG survival. Those activities include energy exploration, development and transmission; farming and ranching, including livestock fences; roads and vehicular travel; and building houses. In issuing its protected status for GSG, the FWS noted certain "threats" to its survival that exist.

It was on this point of existing threats that BLM seized its opportunity to move with a new layer of federal regulation on public lands for GSG. The FWS noted a lack of "regulatory certainty" involving the threats it had identified. According to Brian St. George, a deputy BLM state director who was in Delta on Oct. 19, those threats were the key. The BLM moved to address the regulatory uncertainty and by doing so has now issued its rangewide DRMP as a result.

According to Delta County administrator Robbie LeValley who is a Delta County representative to the 11-county working group, the threats to GSG that FWS had been identified and addressed by the working group much earlier. Local governments had previously provided regulatory certainty by enacting prescriptive ordinances, guidelines and codes.

According to St. George, the BLM's new regulatory regimen applies only to BLM-administered public lands. But private individuals including grazing permittees on those public lands and landowners with parcels bordering areas of GSG occupancy or critical habitat have expressed concerns.

For example, will the BLM's new regulations become factors in directly reducing grazing, and will other federal agencies use them as criteria for qualification on government loans and grants for irrigation and other on-farm improvements? No one knows the answer to that question, including St. George who told the DCI it will be up to the specific circumstance and federal agency involved to make those determinations.

The BLM's rangewide DRMP presents a range of alternatives and is not a final decision. But ag operators and others in the private enterprise economy have pointed out that neither the FWS listing nor the BLM's rangewide DRMP guarantees better results for GSG and its habitat than the 11-county working group's efforts have achieved in more than 20 years of work. Some have said the FWS listing is one step in an effort to eventually list the far more widespread greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered. That would extend Endangered Species Act regulations over vast swaths of the West's public lands -- lands local human economies and communities depend on for their existence.

The BLM's new layer of federal regulation involving the GSG may have eliminated the FWS concern over "regulatory certainty," but it has given private enterprise ag operators new levels of business uncertainty to consider in the future.

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