Birds breeding on well pads? Garfield County fights potential grouse listing

May 19, 2015

A male greater sage grouse struts for female birds on a lek, or breeding area, outside of Walden, Colorado.
Credit Kathleen Tadvick/Colorado Parks and Wildlife

There’s a debate happening about how to manage a chicken-like bird that calls part of Garfield County home. Last week county commissioners submitted a 1000 page package to the Bureau of Land Management. The agency’s drawing up a plan for how to protect the greater sage grouse whose population is shrinking. County officials fear protection could mean strict regulations for the oil and gas industry. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

The Bureau of Land Management’s plan aims to avoid a federal listing of the greater sage grouse as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make that determination this fall.

Rifle Mayor Randy Winkler says tough new federal regulations could be devastating for his city of 9500 people. It depends on energy industry dollars and sits near greater sage grouse habitat.

"We have hundreds of employees who are employed in the industry and the city relies on federal mineral lease dollars and severance dollars," he says. "Those dollars help make it possible for the city to complete high priority capital projects and to help protect the health and safety of our community."

The map on the left shows the rangewide habitat for greater sage grouse. The map on the right shows where the birds are in Colorado.
Credit Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Preserving the grouse is top-of-mind for local governments like Rifle and Garfield County.

"Why should Garfield County care if the greater sage grouse is listed?," asked Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky at a recent meeting. "The reason for that is, (the bird's habitat) is in our natural resource lands. It’s in lands that have been 100-percent leased. It’s in lands, where if you drill, you’ll hit natural gas.”

He thinks, with a listing, areas rich with natural gas would no longer be accessible. It’s not just Rifle’s economy that would suffer from strict protective measures for the bird, he says, county coffers would be impacted.

"It will be impossible to drill there, and that affects our county's property taxes, maybe not today, but 10 or 40 years from now. And it affects other county commissioners, as far as how they operate our county.”

It’s estimated 20,000 greater sage grouse are in Colorado. That’s 4 percent of the total number of birds across their range, a sagebrush ecosystem. It stretches over 11 western states and part of Canada. Kathy Griffin coordinates grouse efforts for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

"We’re one of the states with a smaller number of birds in it. We are on the southeastern edge of the species’ range."

She says Colorado’s habitat is unique. "Our habitat is a little bit different. It’s not as open and wide as what you would find in Wyoming. The birds use our habitat a little differently."

She says the main threat to the bird in Colorado is habitat loss and degradation, particularly from the oil and gas industry. Doug Hock is a spokesman for Encana, a large natural gas operator in Garfield County.

"Right now we operate about 700 wells in an area with an active sage grouse habitat."

A decade ago, Encana acquired a 45,000 acre ranch northwest of Parachute. They’ve cleared vegetation so grouse aren’t as vulnerable to predators, installed educational signs and invested in research.

"We provided almost $2 million in support of sage grouse studies as well as other wildlife management projects on the ranch," says Hock.

Encana wants a local approach to conserving the bird rather than a federal one. That’s the resounding feeling across the state. Colorado state government, groups representing agriculture and the energy industry, and Garfield County want to avoid a federal listing for a variety of reasons.

"There just needs to be a balance," says Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. "And, we need to look out for the best interests of the bird and conserve the bird. In doing that, we can also extract natural gas and continue with what’s been important for our economy."

He says state and county conservation measures have helped improve the bird’s numbers. Grouse are even using reclaimed well pads for breeding grounds and chicks and hens have been spotted in empty pipelines. It’s true, says Kathy Griffin with Parks and Wildlife. Still, she says, the birds have lost habitat that’s important for increasing population.

"I wouldn’t say that oil and gas is good for grouse anywhere. Even in the Parachute/Piceance/Roan (bird population), where they’ve been seen strutting and dancing on an oil and gas well. You’ve still lost that habitat, where they need to nest, raise their broods and chicks and winter," she says.

The Garfield County Commissioners are unhappy with a BLM plan due out in June that lists regulatory mechanisms for protecting the grouse. The county argues the plan uses bad science. Meanwhile, Governor Hickenlooper on Friday issued an executive order with more protections for the grouse. Where the regulations come from and just how strict they will ultimately be continues to be an uncertainty.