County council backs state plan for greater sage grouse

The Grand County Council is supporting the state of Utah’s conservation plan to preserve the greater sage grouse in hopes of avoiding Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing for the bird.

Council members voted 6-0 on Tuesday, April 30, to send a letter endorsing the state plan to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Council member Ken Ballantyne did not attend the meeting.

Council chairman Gene Ciarus said the vote was necessary to meet a May 6 deadline for comment “for the council to have some kind of voice.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) ruled in 2010 that the greater sage grouse is warranted for listing under the ESA because of habitat loss and the lack of regulatory mechanisms to prevent further losses, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).

The USFWS reviews the bird’s status annually, but has so far declined to list the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered because other species have higher priority, the Utah DWR states on its website.

Ciarus indicated during the special council meeting that only “a very small sliver” of greater sage grouse habitat exists in Grand County, on the border of Grand and Uintah counties. He said Grand County is not recognized as having grouse habitat under the Bureau of Land Management or state of Utah conservation plans.

However, he said the council needed to voice its support for the state plan in opposition to a different plan proposed by environmental groups – a plan he called “ugly.”

“Basically they are going to lock up 4 million acres of ground,” Ciarus said. “That’s a big amount of land and that has a big effect on the state of Utah.”

Council vice chairman Lynn Jackson added, “This is a pretty benign action because we don’t have sage grouse in Grand County.”

Jackson said he’s glad there are no grouse here because he fears ESA listing could trigger conservation measures that trump private property rights.

The National Refuge Association has acknowledgee the greater sage grouse’s status is controversial.

“Some conservationists believe the bird should be listed as a threatened or endangered species to keep it from declining further,” according to the group’s website. “Others oppose such an action, concerned that it would lead to restrictions on livestock grazing that would harm farms and ranches.”

The Gunnison sage grouse, another species not found in Grand County but which populates some areas of neighboring San Juan County, faces similar controversy. The USFWS proposed listing is as endangered under the ESA in January and designated more than 1.7 million acres in Utah and Colorado as critical habitat, according to Marten Law, an environmental and energy law firm. The federal agency will make its final decision by Sept. 30.

Listing could restrict grazing, energy development and other activities, according to Martin Law. San Juan County has Gunnison sage grouse and would be affected by a listing.

“We have 100 birds in our county and they [USFWS] want to take 35 percent of all the private property in our county for critical habitat,” said San Juan Commission chairman Bruce Adams, adding it would amount to 145,000 acres. “We are very much against them taking private property for critical habitat without any compensation to land owners.”

ByBy Steve Kadel

Staff Writer