WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other key state and federal officials toured Northwest Colorado Tuesday to view firsthand how ranchers are successfully protecting the sage grouse without government interference.
Officials said they were impressed by the stewardship of Ray Owens on the Bord Gulch Ranch and his private efforts to conserve the bird on the 16,000-acre spread.
However, if federal officials decide to designate the bird as either threatened or endangered, nearly two million acres in Colorado including 75 percent of Moffat County would be designated as the bird’s habitat and subjected to new regulations that would restrict ranching, farming energy development, and possibly recreation.
“Ray Owens is a model of the 21st century western rancher with his outstanding stewardship of this working landscape,” Jewell said in a statement after the visit.
“He represents the spirit of partnership that can be replicated across the West as we develop landscape-level strategies to lessen the threats to the sage grouse and conserve its habitat,” Jewell said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe also participated in the tour and in press interviews signaled that the agency was leaning away from an endangered listing, but still considering a “threatened” status that also carries strict land use rules.
“Endangered is always a possibility,” Ashe told the Craig Daily Press. “The greater sage grouse is still in relatively good shape, so it would seem like an endangered determination absent some major catastrophe is probably not where we would head.”
Jewell was invited by several officials to visit the Western Slope and review grouse protection efforts at least once before the government makes a final decision in September.
Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton has repeatedly urged Jewell to visit, but it appeared that she and other key Obama administration officials came as a reluctant guest of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that Jewell was advised by some staff members that she would be unfairly criticized by Coloradoans if she visited the state.
“We should respect her when she’s out here and appreciate her because she’s taking a lot of risk,” Hickenlooper said. “She said, ‘I want to see with my own eyes. I want to learn.’”
Hickenlooper and Jewell held a meeting after the tour with local officials and dozens of residents, but Jewell’s office barred the press from attending what was billed as a public event.
Tipton said in a statement that he was hopeful Jewell would use what she learned during the visit to determine that local and state efforts already underway to protect the grouse have been successful without the federal “one-size-fits-all” approach.
“The success of the efforts underway to preserve the sage grouse stems from locally-tailored plans that take into account the unique topography and ecology of the region in order to best preserve the species that call it home,” Tipton said.
“These listings would kill jobs, devastate communities, and disrupt effective species preservation efforts currently underway,” Tipton said.
“They won’t, however, more effectively preserve the grouse,” Tipton said.
The Western Energy Alliance has questioned the science on which the federal government is relying to designate the species as endangered or threatened, and also opposes sweeping federal conservation rules that would apply to ten states without regard for unique land characteristics.
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the alliance, said blanket federal policies do not take in consideration the variations in habitat or needs of local communities.
Additionally, she said that oil and natural gas companies already operate under regulations to protect species and have also implemented voluntary measures.
“The (Interior Department) is planning restrictions on economic activity based on information that doesn’t meet rudimentary scientific standards,” Sgamma said.
“On the other hand, state alternatives are tailored to on-the-ground conditions while encouraging local efforts and balancing the needs of communities,” Sgamma added.