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RIFLE, Colo. — The wild, beautiful landscape of Colorado’s Western Slope is what draws residents such as Luke Schafer, a local environmental campaigner.
From stands of aspen and pinyon pine to a variety of desert sagebrush, the region offers room for wildlife to roam and for humans to hunt, hike and ski.
But the region’s economic driver comes from beneath that landscape in the form of oil and gas — mostly natural gas. Taxes, royalties and severance fees from oil and gas fuel local governments, schools, hospitals, fire departments and more in the region.
Enter the greater sage grouse, a bird known for the males’ spring mating dance. Its declining population in recent decades means the grouse is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 44 percent of the bird’s original habitat has been lost.
Conservationists, local governments, oil and gas interests, state biologists, federal land managers and residents are at odds over the future of the bird, which is pitting economic development against environmental conservation. At stake are jobs, livelihoods and, some say, the Western landscape itself.
There are areas of agreement.
“I think everyone wants to see the grouse around,” said Schafer, the West Slope advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, a group advocating for the bird. “I don’t think anyone wants to see the grouse disappear.”
“We are absolutely committed to preserving habitat for the bird,” said Fred Jarman, director of the community development department of Garfield County, which is disputing state and federal assessments of where the grouse roams.
They agree that any decision should be based on science — ongoing research about the birds, their habitat and how they use it to survive.
“We just differ in how we’re going to get there,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, told elected officials on a recent Western Slope trip.
There’s even consensus that the debate is as much about politics as anything.
“It’s really very complicated,” said Kathy Griffin, a wildlife biologist coordinating grouse conservation for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “It’s a very, very political situation.”
But that is seemingly where the agreement ends. What methods would keep the bird from being listed as endangered and what the science proves are matters of debate. The impact of oil and gas drilling is a central issue.
About half a million greater sage grouse live in the U.S., with roughly 17,000 in Colorado, according to government estimates. The bird is different from other species being considered for protected status because of its range across 11 Western states, said Jim Cagney, the Northwest Colorado district manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“This is the first one where a game species with broad distribution has been in trouble,” Cagney said. “This is a big deal. We’ve got to handle this right.”
Part of the issue, said Schafer, is that the grouse is one of many species dependent on the sagebrush habitat.
“Sage grouse is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “This is our opportunity to stave off a problem before it becomes much larger.”
Schafer, who has lived in Craig for 10 years, hunts large game such as deer and elk, which also use grouse habitat. He notes that hunting is big business in Colorado. Even the sage grouse’s spring mating ritual, in which male grouse dance in a lek to attract females, draws tourism in the area.
“It’s an experience to see 100 birds out there dancing around,” he said.
Griffin said the bird is an essential part of the ecosystem.
“Sage grouse are a prey species — everybody eats them,” Griffin said. “Their main predators are your coyotes, foxes, the avian predators, like the hawks. Ravens will eat their eggs. Badger, raccoon, skunk.”
But Griffin discounts recommendations that predator control would do more to increase sage grouse populations than limiting oil and gas exploration.
“If we start a predator control program, it’s probably not going to be effective unless we do it for 10 years, and that’s a very, very expensive program,” she said.
The process for a species to become listed as threatened or endangered is long and involved. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won’t make a decision on the greater sage grouse until sometime in 2015.
But thousands of comments on preservation proposals by the BLM came into the agency’s Grand Junction office last week, Cagney said, varying from form letters to more detailed statements that present some information the agency didn’t know or hadn’t considered.
“Those are the ones we’re looking for,” said Cagney, who is expected to respond to comments over the next four months.
Jarman and the Garfield County commissioners paid about $200,000 for a biologist and the American Stewards of Liberty, a conservative group based in Texas, to make their case. They say there is 70 percent less sage grouse habitat in Garfield County than the state’s research indicated. The county also objects to 4-mile buffers around the leks to provide hens nesting habitat.
But at the heart of the county’s concerns is the oil and gas industry.
“With the loss of revenue, the economic impact, if the sage grouse were declared an endangered species, that would just devastate us,” Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson told the governor at a meeting in Rifle last month.
Up to $218 billion in oil and gas development could be affected in the next 25 years if the grouse is listed as threatened or endangered, said Jarman.
Governor steps in
When Hickenlooper moved to Denver some 30 years ago, he initially worked as a geologist for the oil and gas industry. Now that he is a Democratic governor, some believe he’s too welcoming to the industry for which he once worked.
“Governor Hickenlooper has never tried to hide the fact that he is an oil and gas guy,” said Tresi Houpt, a Glenwood Springs resident and former Democratic Garfield County commissioner. “I’m disappointed that he’s not trusting the process.”
The greater sage grouse issue drew packed houses when Hickenlooper met with citizens in Craig and elected officials in Rifle. But what could have been a hostile setting in Rifle turned friendly, especially when the governor described a recent conversation about the sage grouse with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
“It was one of the rare times I’ve raised my voice,” Hickenlooper said.
As chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, Hickenlooper said he hopes to bring together a working group to come up with a plan to preserve the greater sage grouse and its habitat, but also to preserve the Western economy.
He’ll be walking a fine line, between those who believe oil and gas development fragments sage grouse habitat and those who believe development has little impact on the birds.
“I think that we have plenty of case studies and examples where you have operators that have been operating in sage grouse habitat for a decade,” said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “When you look at what’s causing the declines, pointing to one industry can be sort of a scapegoat approach.”
But Jacob Richards, of Silt, who waited outside for the governor to arrive in Rifle holding a sign reading “Grouse Not Gas,” questioned the actual economic value of the gas industry. The 32-year-old laborer grew up here and spends plenty of time outdoors, but said he hasn’t seen a grouse in eight or nine years.
“This whole area’s been devastated from it,” he said. “The reality is they don’t really hire the locals for the high-paying jobs.”