GJ SENTINEL 4/21/14 Wildlife Crossing

Apr 21, 2014

Remote habitat in Grand Junction region identified

An aircraft flies over the backcountry southwest of Grand Junction in a view west toward the La Sal Mountains in Utah. In remote areas such as this, the Bureau of Land Management has identified wildlife emphasis zones as part of its continuing revision of the resource management plan for its Grand Junction Field Office.

Take to the air on a flight path leading from Grand Junction toward Gateway, and one thing becomes apparent.

Humans are mostly just visitors to the landscape that lies below.

“This is some wild country back here,” Bruce Gordon, president and executive director of the Aspen-based EcoFlight conservation group, said while piloting a recent overflight of land primarily administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

“Yes — (it’s) amazingly open back here,” said Nick Payne, Colorado field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership sportsmen group.

The very remoteness, ruggedness and relative inaccessibility to humans of this area of canyons, desert uplands and other BLM lands is what makes it attractive to wildlife, which have sizable acreages largely to themselves. With countryside ranging from rivers to forests, it offers summer to winter habitat and corridors for safe migration in between.

“There’s these chunks of intact and undeveloped land that are serving as crucial habitat. We feel that that’s the most important use of the land in these critical areas, is to maintain hunting and fishing, especially big-game opportunities,” Payne said.

Such lands, both southwest of Grand Junction and elsewhere within the jurisdiction of the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office, are drawing attention in the agency’s ongoing revision of its resource management plan. The agency’s preferred alternative in its draft plan identifies 11 proposed “wildlife emphasis areas” where the agency seeks to put a priority on habitat protection across 170,500 total acres. The goal is to protect animals including sage-grouse, cutthroat trout, pronghorn, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and kit fox.

No such areas exist under the existing management plan, although the agency has been identifying and protecting wildlife in the past in certain areas through the imposition of stipulations on activities, said BLM spokesman David Boyd. Lands such as ones it has designated as areas of critical environmental concern, or is managing to protect wilderness characteristics, also may have important protected habitat.

Groups weigh in

But the concept of specifically identifying areas for wildlife protection is gaining steam within the region, and Boyd said it helps land managers and the public focus on habitat where the agency is proposing protective measures, and see how those proposed protections vary by alternatives being considered.

These are not formal designations, and they have been described in different ways in different plans. The 1999 plan for what’s now the Colorado River Valley Field Office, headquartered in Silt, identified wildlife seclusion areas. The BLM Kremmling Field Office’s final management plan proposal refers to wildlife core areas.

Meanwhile, groups like Payne’s have been weighing in on the issue. With the BLM’s Meeker-based White River Field Office revising its oil and gas management plan, the Roosevelt Conservation Partnership proposed the idea of creating “backcountry conservation areas” where habitat protection would be the focus. But Payne said it made the proposal a bit late in that process.

“The BLM felt like it would be too big of a step for them to take to add another designation to their plan, and so they have been working with us by using some of the current management techniques,” he said.

Said Boyd, “We don’t have that specific designation available but we have other means to accomplish those same objectives.”

He said the White River oil and gas preferred draft alternative doesn’t identify specific wildlife emphasis areas because so much of the office’s jurisdiction is important habitat.

Acreage there that’s heavily relied upon by deer, elk and greater sage-grouse also already is largely leased for oil and gas development, and so the agency has proposed waiving seasonal limits on drilling if energy companies keep their total surface impacts within certain percentage thresholds.

Activity stipulations

In the case of the Grand Junction plan, the BLM’s proposed wildlife emphasis areas to some extent overlap areas being targeted for protection by Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, other conservation groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, and business supporters including Gene Taylor’s Sporting Goods, Marchand Taxidermy and Red Rock Archery, all in Grand Junction.

However, “we’re pushing for other areas to be included,” Payne said.

So is Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which in a letter to the BLM last summer asked that the BLM include all of its proposed wildlife emphasis areas in its final plan, but also called for expansions for the proposed Glade Park area to take in crucial winter elk habitat on Piñon Mesa.

The Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and fellow coalition members want an expanded Glade Park area as well. Altogether, they want 16 areas covering 378,600 acres protected. Among some places Payne said are particularly important to also protect are areas the Roosevelt Conservation Partnership proposal identifies as Lumsden Canyon, Unaweep, Granite Creek, Mesa Creek and Calamity, all more or less in the Gateway area, and all considered vital to deer and elk.

The BLM is proposing a variety of protections for wildlife emphasis areas, mixed and matched for each area. These include stipulations on surface-disturbing activities, travel closures, seasonal and recreation restrictions, and exclusion or avoidance of rights of way in some areas and requirement of best management practices elsewhere when rights of way are allowed, to minimize habitat fragmentation.

For example, part of the 22,200-acre Prairie Canyon wildlife emphasis area west of Mack would be a right-of-way avoidance area for above-ground facilities, including for renewable energy projects such as wind and solar, to protect a pronghorn migration corridor.

The 28,600-acre Rapid Creek area west of Mesa would have that same protection where it currently is undisturbed, as well as being subject to other measures including winter closures enforced with gates to protect wintering and migrating deer and elk.

The Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and groups it is working with generally want existing routes important for public access kept open, with creation of new routes generally prohibited. They also want to require use of directional/horizontal drilling to relocate and minimize surface impacts in backcountry areas.

Industry concerns

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said that however the BLM chooses to refer to areas where it wants to protect habitat in its plans, the industry is less concerned about the semantics and more concerned about the specific stipulations that might be attached.

“Whatever it’s called, we’re going to be focused on what it means for us,” he said.

He said he thinks that by and large, energy companies have shown through various big-game studies they have been involved in, their work to protect sage-grouse and others means that they have an interest in protecting wildlife.

Where they would be concerned is when stipulations are subjective, anecdotal, not based on science, and cost-prohibitive, he said.

Some of the areas targeted by the BLM and conservation groups for protection around Grand Junction have seen minimal energy development. But Ludlam said that could change in some areas as efforts to produce oil and gas from shale formations continue and advances in technology and efficiency improve.

One recommendation made by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in its written comments to the BLM last summer regarding the Grand Junction plan touches on a sensitive subject for the industry. Parks and Wildlife encouraged the BLM to use its authority to impose specific mitigation measures as necessary to protect wildlife during drilling on existing leases.

The BLM has said that authority is based on a 2008 Interior Board of Land Appeals ruling in a Wyoming case involving post-lease restrictions including increased buffer zones to protect greater sage-grouse. The BLM is relying on the authority in its proposed White River Field Office plan because it would impose seasonal timing limits on surface disturbances on all lands, including leased acreage not already subject to those limits. That would set up the ability to waive the timing limits when companies agree to restrictions on how much acreage they disturb at a given time.

Ludlam continues to question whether it’s fair or legal to change the terms of an existing lease contract.

“We’ve been troubled by that for a long time now,” he said.