Scott Streater, E&E reporter
E&E: Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton (R), a vocal champion of states taking the lead on Endangered Species Act protections, says the Bureau of Land Management better be mindful of state and local concerns as it develops an ambitious new plan to protect the Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado and Utah.

BLM announced this week that the agency is launching a new effort to protect the iconic bird that proposes amending up to 11 resource management plans (RMPs) covering 800,000 acres of Gunnison sage grouse habitat in both states. Doing so would make it formal BLM policy to restrict development within a 4-mile buffer of Gunnison breeding grounds, called leks; limit recreational activities like bird watching and hunting during breeding season; and impose surface occupancy restrictions in occupied Gunnison habitat (Greenwire, June 16).

Tipton’s district includes most of the Gunnison grouse range in southwest Colorado, where most of the RMPs would be amended under the plan.

“As the BLM revises the RMPs, I strongly urge them to work closely with local stakeholders and states who know the habitats best, and use sound, transparent science to ensure the grouse is protected while maintaining the ability of local communities to responsibly utilize and access the land,” Tipton said in a statement. “To achieve this, collaboration with state and local stakeholders is an absolute necessity.”

The announcement of BLM’s new plan comes as the Fish and Wildlife Service is under a Nov. 12 court mandate to determine whether to list the bird that’s found almost exclusively in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah as threatened or endangered.

BLM this week issued an instruction memorandum (IM) to agency field offices in Colorado and Utah directing them to immediately follow the tenets of the proposed management plan, which is expected to take two years to complete.

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, said BLM’s proposed Gunnison protections “are long overdue and a welcome step forward in preventing the extinction of this iconic bird.”

But the Endangered Species Act is in the political crosshairs in recent months, and Tipton has supported four GOP bills that stem from a working group of 13 House Republicans — including House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) — that recommend updating the landmark law (Greenwire, April 30).

And Tipton is co-sponsoring a bill filed last month by Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) that would delay by as long as 10 years listing both the Gunnison sage grouse and the greater sage grouse, while giving states the lead in conserving the birds’ habitat (Greenwire, May 22).

Tipton, along with Colorado Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, has touted state and local initiatives to help save the Gunnison sage grouse.

Mike Saccone, a spokesman for Udall, said the senator “continues to support locally driven efforts to preserve the Gunnison sage grouse.”

“Since this is a formal agency planning process, Senator Udall expects BLM to coordinate extensive public feedback, and he urges Colorado to participate,” Saccone said.

Tipton, Udall and Bennet in April sent a letter to FWS Director Dan Ashe asking for a deadline extension to allow more time for “local communities to implement good-faith conservation efforts” for the grouse.

A federal judge last month approved a request by Fish and Wildlife to push back by six months the deadline to decide whether to list the bird — to Nov. 12 from May 12 (Greenwire, May 6).

Fish and Wildlife was originally required to make a final listing decision on the ground-dwelling bird by May 12 under the terms of a 2011 settlement agreement with WildEarth Guardians stemming from a backlog of species awaiting final listing decisions.

“We were encouraged by the six month extension in May on the deadline for the Fish and Wildlife Service to make a listing decision on the Gunnison sage grouse,” Tipton said in his statement. “Effective efforts at the state and local level are currently underway to preserve the bird and should be allowed to continue without federal interference.”

WildEarth Guardians did not oppose the extension request because, the group says, the Interior Department committed to some extensive new mitigation measures — including updating RMPs across the Gunnison sage grouse’s range in Colorado and Utah to include conservation measures.

But Molvar, the WildEarth Guardians wildlife biologist, took exception to Tipton’s statement, and he said the group would be watching closely to ensure the federal plan is implemented properly.

“It’s symbolic nonsense to say that BLM better include state and local input, because by law anytime BLM does any resource management plan amendment the National Environmental Policy Act requires participation by everyone, including state and local officials,” he said. “Everyone should have an equal opportunity for input.”

 

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