County, cattlemen join forces to fight sage grouse listing
Legal agreement offers ability to share info, strategies
Originally published 2013-02-14
Gunnison County leaders and local ranchers have formally combined efforts to fight the proposed “listing” of the Gunnison Sage-grouse.
The Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association (GCSA) and county officials signed a “joint defense agreement” Tuesday, allowing for the confidential sharing of strategies and information.
Last month, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its long-awaited proposal to end, once and for all, more than a decade of regulatory uncertainty over the bird. FWS is proposing that the grouse be deemed “endangered” — which would offer the highest level of protection under the Endangered Species Act.
That’s despite more than a decade of work locally to avoid such a designation. FWS officials have said that they recognize the Gunnison Basin population of the bird is at least stable. But it’s other, satellite populations of the grouse that they fear face the greatest threat of extinction.
March 12 marks the end of a 60-day comment period on both the proposed listing and proposed designation of “critical habitat.” A final determination is expected by Sept. 30 of this year.
Deputy County Attorney Art Trezise explained to the County Commissioners this week that the agreement with the stockgrowers would allow the two parties to “share information, but nobody can be forced to disclose any of the information that goes between us.”
In other words, correspondence between the two parties is protected by attorney-client privilege. Trezise said that this would both allow GCSA’s legal counsel to provide strategic direction, while allowing county legal staff to work on more mundane legal matters, saving the stockgrowers money in the end.
GCSA President Doug Washburn said that the organization this past fall retained Denver-based attorney Deborah Freeman, a specialist in ESA legal issues.
“As you know, it’s been suggested that a lot of the science behind this (listing proposal) is not valid,” Trezise told the commissioners. “So we’re trying to pursue and determine what’s good science and what isn’t, but (Freeman) has the ability to say, ‘This is an argument that’s worth making.’”
Trezise said that the county is not currently pursuing similar agreements with other local parties.
Commissioner Paula Swenson noted that GCSA is the county’s longest running partner with respect to grouse-related matters.
“The county has shown a long-term effort on this issue, and so we felt comfortable that we weren’t compromising our position by showing our cards to the county,” Washburn concurred of the agreement.
Trezise clarified that the joint defense agreement is not necessarily a precursor to litigation. Rather, it first offers the two parties an opportunity to combine their efforts during the 60-day comment period.
“Although we’re certainly not ignoring the fact that we may end up in court in order to be heard,” he added.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)