DOVE CREEK – Since 2014, when the Gunnison sage grouse was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, farmers, ranchers and oil and gas companies have braced for new federal polices to protect the rare bird.
In August, the Bureau of Land Management released a 1,000-page proposal to increase protection for grouse that could limit development and activities on public lands. The BLM manages 40 percent of Gunnison sage grouse habitat.
It is estimated that only 5,000 of the ground-dwelling birds remain, with 4,000 in the Gunnison Basin. The rest are scattered in satellite populations around Dove Creek and Monticello, Utah. Occupied habitat includes private and federal lands.
During a public meeting on the plan in Dove Creek last week, farmers, ranchers and local officials urged the BLM to work with them on ways to improve the grouse’s chances for long-term survival.
Julie Kibel, a Dolores county commissioner, said cooperation is needed for an effective solution because the bird’s sagebrush habitat overlaps private and public lands.
“The county is working on conservation efforts with private landowners to help get the bird delisted,” she said. “Landowners are willing to work with the BLM, but need more information on what to do.”
She said advice on habitat improvement is needed, such as where and how to improve water access for the bird, sagebrush range improvement, predator control, and where removing piñon-juniper forests could help the bird.
“Why go through all the conservation efforts if they say landowners are not doing enough?” she said. “Where there is crossover of private and public lands, we need to sit down with federal and state agencies and see what we can do together.”
Alternatives in the plan propose new buffer zones for the bird’s lek, a clearing where male birds dramatically strut and display plumage to attract females and mate. Hens nest within a 4-mile range of the lek.
The commotion of roads and nearby oil and gas development can disturb sage grouse, officials said Alternative B in the plan proposes a 4-mile buffer for development, and alternative C proposes a 1-mile buffer. But Alternative D, the BLM’s preferred plan, puts the lek buffer at 0.6 miles.
“Research suggest that there is a certain level of wells that you can have and not measure population impacts,” said BLM biologist Nate West. “It doesn’t mean that it won’t disturb the bird.”
Dove Creek resident David Cressler said studies are needed on the possible benefit of some development for the sage grouse.
“The birds like the activity because it keeps predators like coyotes and birds away, just the way deer come to town because there are no predators,” he said.
The buffer restrictions for leks do not apply to grazing, said Bridget Clayton, BLM’s Colorado sage grouse coordinator. If leks or nests are within a BLM grazing allotment, the permit could be adjusted to include more fencing or pasture rotation to avoid bird impacts. Timing limitations could be implemented to restrict activity around nesting sites between May and July.
“There is evidence that grazing is not bad for sage grouse if managed properly,” Clayton said.
Reducing livestock numbers to protect the sage grouse would be more of a last resort, officials said.
“Before we take an adverse action against a permittee, we need to step back and say, ‘Does this landscape have the potential for sage grouse habitat?’” said Brian St. George, BLM deputy state director. “If yes, we look for an alternative, customized solution such as modifying the season of use, or rotating pastures in a more effective way.”
Officials said the Endangered Species Act listing, and BLM’s focus on the bird’s recovery, are incentive for ranchers on public lands to adjust their practices to keep current stock numbers.
At the meeting, farmers said cropland benefits sage grouse by providing a variety of food sources, water, and cover.
Gary Crowley, a farmer from Eastland, Utah, said there has been a concern among farmers that a Gunnison sage grouse on their property could prevent them from expanding farms into sagebrush habitat.
“I think they should experiment with relocating the bird to Canyonlands National Park as a way to boost population numbers,” he suggested. “There is plenty of sagebrush habitat there, the wouldn’t be bothered, and tourists would have a chance to observe them.”
Cooperation with private landowners is key for improving the bird’s population in the struggling satellite populations around Dove Creek and Monticello, St. George said.
“The BLM is managing 40 percent of habitat, but there is another half of the story. We need to be mindful of private lands to create a continuum of healthy sage brush habitat and ensure the viability of the sage grouse.”