WASHINGTON — Colorado officials are increasing pressure on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to visit the state to see first-hand the widespread and expensive efforts already underway to protect the sage grouse from extinction.
The federal government will decide in early 2014 whether to list the bird as endangered and also declare 1.7 million acres of Western Slope land as critical habitat, a decision critics say would cripple agriculture and energy production as well as restrict other land uses.
“If the true goal is species preservation, then I hope Secretary Jewell will come to Colorado and see firsthand the effective work being done to preserve the sage grouse,” Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton said this week on the House floor.
Tipton and other Colorado lawmakers first asked Jewell in July to visit the state to see how local efforts had succeeded in protecting the species.
“We believe the collaborative and voluntary process our state has undertaken could be used as a model to protect other threatened species within Colorado and across the country,” Tipton and Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet said in the letter.
“These efforts and others have led to the expenditure of over $30 million in public and private funds, all with the goal of preserving the species,” the lawmakers said.
“Thanks to these initiatives we’ve made great progress – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data now show the population of Gunnison sage grouse has increased in the Gunnison Basin,” the lawmakers added.
Jewell never responded to the letter or the lawmakers’ invitation, but a congressional aide says that with the deadline for a decision looming, pressure is being renewed on the Obama administration from Capitol Hill as well as Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The governor issued a statement Oct. 31 touting the state’s success over the past two decades to preserve the species, and echoed the lawmakers call for officials to judge the state’s success before enacting rigorous land-use rules.
“Given the unique landscapes and natural resources in Colorado, a Colorado-based solution is more practical that one handed down by the federal government,” Hickenlooper said.
“We hope the Bureau of Land Management will look at the public-private partnerships that have been so successful in Colorado as a model on how to get things done,” Hickenlooper said.
The federal government determined in 2006 and again in 2010 that the grouse was not in danger of extinction and did not warrant listing on the endangered species list.
However, environmentalists sued the Interior Department, which agreed in a closed-door settlement to renew the listing effort.
The 1.8 million acres that would be affected by the listing of the grouse include public as well as private property, owners of which would not be compensated for the loss of the land’s use.
“It would kill jobs, devastate communities, and disrupt effective species preservation efforts currently underway,” Tipton said this week.
“It won’t, however, more effectively preserve the grouse,” Tipton said.
Further frustrating lawmakers is that the Interior Department has refused to set any sort of species preservation goals do determine when efforts are considered successful.
“Local conservation efforts are all too often disrupted by heavy-handed federal attempts to implement blanket plans that neglect local environmental and geographic factors. These one-size-fits-all plans create endless litigation and tie up resources that could be used for preservation,” Tipton said.
Efforts by the state and private citizens to protect the grouse include conservation easements on 74,000 acres, plus management plans on more than a half-million acres including mitigation plans for ranching and grazing.
The Nature Conservancy and other environmental organizations are also managing 24,000 acres for the grouse.
Jewell made one trip to Colorado not long after she was confirmed to the post, to meet with National Park Service officials in Denver on issues that did not involve the proposed grouse listing.