Colo. coalition accuses BLM of ignoring locals in sage grouse policy
Written bySCOTT STREATER, Greenwire
A coalition of local officials in Colorado says the Bureau of Land Management's national office in Washington, D.C., is interfering with local efforts to develop a balanced policy for managing greater sage grouse habitat on public land.
The members of five Colorado county commissions and two conservation districts sent a letter this week to Helen Hankins, director of BLM's Colorado State Office, alleging that the agency has already made up its mind to approve a "National Greater Sage Grouse Planning Strategy" that mirrors recommendations by the agency's National Technical Team (NTT) that the local leaders consider to be an "extreme grouse-conservation alternative" that could interfere with oil and natural gas drilling, recreation and livestock grazing.
The group also accused BLM's national office of recently directing agency officials in Colorado "to consider an even more conservation-oriented alternative, one that makes the NTT report look 'middle of the road,'" they wrote.
The officials from Garfield, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Routt counties, along with the White River and Douglas Creek conservation districts, are "cooperating agencies" that are helping BLM develop the national strategy that will guide management of the imperiled bird across the 47 million acres of grouse habitat overseen by the agency in 10 Western states.
"Although we plan to continue participating in the process, we are deeply concerned the process does not accommodate the mandates that BLM consider the views of local governments," they wrote, adding, "It is apparent that BLM is bound by parameters that reflect advance decisions by BLM on the preferred alternative while not addressing the scientific controversies regarding the status of sage grouse populations. These parameters are also not consistent with the needs within our respective communities."
They wrote in the three-page letter that ignoring the concerns of local leaders in Colorado shortcuts the process and "will only end in failure."
Steven Hall, a BLM spokesman in Denver, said he had seen the letter to Hankins but declined to discuss its allegations. He added, "We certainly welcome the input from these groups, and we'll consider what they have to say."
But the notion that BLM is ignoring local input or wants to destroy minerals development on federal land that contains sage grouse habitat is false, said Luke Schafer, West Slope campaign coordinator for the Colorado Environmental Coalition in Craig, Colo.
BLM has made it a top priority to protect the greater sage grouse and keep it off the endangered species list, Schafer said, and the only way to do that is to protect the grouse's dwindling habitat.
"It's not the Washington office, it's the Fish and Wildlife Service," Schafer said.
FWS has listed the greater sage grouse as a "candidate species" for ESA listing and is under a court-ordered mandate to issue a final determination on the bird's status by 2015.
"It's not the case of Washington overriding anything, they're just doing what they're required to do," Schafer said. "It's not that there's a choice."
Energy industry's concerns
The local government coalition's letter follows similar concerns expressed by the oil and gas industry and other stakeholders last spring during the scoping period for the environmental impact statement that will form the foundation of the national sage grouse strategy. BLM is not expected to finalize a national grouse policy until late 2014.
The Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which represents about 400 oil and natural gas companies, submitted comments to BLM in March stating that the preliminary recommendations by the NTT are "excessively restrictive" on drilling and that any attempt to impose additional restrictions to existing, valid oil and gas leases would be illegal (EnergyWire, March 28).
These sentiments were echoed in separate comments submitted by a coalition of industry trade groups that includes the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the Montana Petroleum Association, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the Utah Petroleum Association and Public Lands Advocacy.
The industry coalition expressed concern that the NTT recommendations, among other things, would prohibit surface disturbance activity within 4 miles of sage grouse breeding areas, called "leks."
For its part, BLM notes that although oil and gas drilling is a major economic driver in the state, supporting more than 22,000 jobs and generating nearly $5 billion in economic activity last year, about 90 percent of all oil and gas development in Colorado is on state or private lands.
The development of the booming Niobrara Shale formation continues mostly on private land on the east side of the Front Range, though heavily drilled areas of the Piceance Basin -- a potential gold mine for oil shale development -- contain large segments of federal land, said Hall, the BLM spokesman.
"Here in Colorado we're all Coloradans, we're all citizens, we all need to work together to find solutions," Schafer said. "I've never heard anyone say, 'Let's go out and destroy sage grouse.' Everyone wants to see the species recover and be successful. Everyone is in agreement along those lines. There are different opinions on how to get there, but we're working together to try and figure out how we get there."
But the county commissions and conservation district leaders reiterated in their letter this week that they believe "Washington has already determined the preferred alternative that BLM must select, hence the limited latitude given to the Cooperating Agencies."