New sage grouse protection strategy?
Tiered approach to habitat prioritization proposed
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2013-07-11
Designation of Gunnison Sage-grouse habitat could be further refined under a new tier system proposed to the Gunnison County Commissioners this week. The plan would divide grouse habitat into two distinct categories and could result in more stringent review for some projects, if implemented.
County GIS Manager Mike Pelletier, in an interview with the Times, explained that Tier 1 would be the best habitat and Tier 2 the lesser quality of habitat.
“And of course, it all needs site-specific fieldwork, but it points you in the right direction,” he said.
Currently, through the county’s Land Use Resolution (LUR), Wildlife Conservation Coordinator Jim Cochran reviews every proposed project within mapped Gunnison Sage-grouse occupied habitat or within six-tenths of a mile of a lek.
Under the tiered proposal, habitat within a 0.6- to four-mile radius of a lek would fall under Tier 1 and likely result in stricter review standards for development in those areas.
“We’re not removing Tier 2 (from review). ... We don’t want to say that there’s not going to be a review,” Cochran explained to the commissioners, adding that 16 percent of grouse live in habitat not considered to be ideal.
He offered, however, that this could also mean incentivizing development in Tier 2 habitats.
The county has been criticized in the past by representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for not mitigating habitat loss. In a 2010 report, FWS noted that though the county reviewed 231 projects from July 2006 through November 2009 for impacts to Gunnison Sage-grouse, ultimately all of the projects were approved.
The agency has proposed listing the bird as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, for which a final decision is expected by Sept. 30.
When asked whether the tier system could be a mitigation tool, Pelletier admitted that the process is in too early of a stage to know at this point.
“It all depends on what comes from it,” he said. “There could be incentive (provided) to build in the right place ... but it’s very difficult to say without being speculative.”
Implementing a tier system could also mean changes to the LUR, which currently treats all mapped occupied habitat just as stringently has habitat within six-tenths of a mile of a lek.
“The language is confusing, so we’d like to clean up some of that language,” said Pelletier.
Exactly what regulations could look like under each tier has yet to be determined, but staff received a nod from the commissioners Tuesday to begin working out the details.
“That’s the hard part,” said Cochran.
Pelletier told the Times that changes may not be “all that dramatic.”
“The county is saying our regulations are doing a good job. ... But we’re still trying to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list, so it’s all strategy,” he said. “It’s hard to know what that will be, but we’ll know more in the future.”
The commissioners instigated the process of creating a habitat prioritization tool — from which the tiered proposal has arisen — in order to comply with their Strategic Plan goal to “designate appropriate areas for Gunnison Sage-grouse habitat protection, as well as industrial and commercial development” by the end of 2013, the plan reads.
(Laura Anderson can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)