Non-native ordinance will be reworded

Agriculture interests are protected, but unwanted species are prohibited

A proposed ordinance intended to prevent endangered species from being introduced into Montezuma County will be adjusted to safeguard standard agricultural practices.

The non-native species ordinance caused a minor ruckus after being presented to the public in the legals section of the Cortez Journal. It has since been posted on the Montezuma County website.

Local farmers and the Colorado Farm Bureau expressed concerns that the ban could be interpreted to include non-native farm animals and commonly used non-native crop species, including those genetically modified to fight off pests.

“It needs clarification,” said county attorney John Baxter. “We’ve had a lot of calls concerned that it applies to agriculture and seeds, but that was not the intent.”

The idea for the ordinance was triggered by the possibility that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife may list the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species.

A decision is expected this Spring, and if listed, designated critical habitat is proposed for neighboring Dolores County. The designation could affect activities on private and public lands in that area.

There are no reported populations, or even individual birds, located in Montezuma County, but it is unclear if they were once native here. Around 147 birds are thought to be hanging on around Dove Creek and Egnar on private and public lands.

But putting a ban on introducing endangered species into the county would give the county legal standing if there was such and effort.

“We want to get out in front of a possible listing,” said commissioner Keenan Ertel. “We’re concerned a species could be transplanted here and trigger habitat designation.”

Discussion was had on how to exactly word an ordinance so it prevents unwanted introduction, or re-introduction, of animal species that could carry special protections and regulations.

The commissioners felt some sort of law prohibiting such actions would be wise.

“If we have something in place, we can say we have a law against that,” said commissioner Steve Chappell. “It also puts us in a better position to coordinate with federal agencies.”

Another incident last fall on McElmo Creek triggered suspicion, when Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials were confronted by landowner Sheldon Zwicker and neighbor Chester Tozer for stocking the creek with native fish.

Matt Thorpe, a new local manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, discussed the issue with the county board.

He explained that three native fish, the roundtail chub, flannelmouth sucker, and bluehead sucker are considered species of special concern for CPW.

“We entered into an agreement to try and avoid a federal listing,” under the Endangered Species Act, he said.

The result is stocking efforts by CPW along regional waterways.

McElmo Creek and the Lower Dolores River are identified as habitat for the roundtail chub, Thorpe explained.

“We want to take proactive measures. The environmentalists are pushing for listing species, so if we bolster populations, we can avoid that.”

Regarding the trespass charge, Thorpe said it was accidental.

“It was a mix up, they went through the wrong gate,” he said. “Private landowners are critical in our efforts because they have the habitat. We will contact landowners to make sure we have permission.”

CPW works to be proactive. For example they successfully re-introduced the lynx in the area with no impacts to ranching and ski areas, Thorpe said.

“As a result, it was not listed as endangered federally and it was controlled at the state level,” he said.

Also CPW debunked claims by environmentalists that the high altitude pika was become endangered.

“We conducted surveys and found the population was doing fine. It takes time though to challenge these claims,” Thorpe said.

At any rate, the county plans to re-word the non-native ordinance so it prohibits unwanted species, but exempts common agricultural crops.

The new ordinance will require 30 day public notice and a public hearing. The commissioners hope to have it passed before the decision to list the Gunnison sage grouse is this spring.

“Our concern is a planting here of the Gunnison sage grouse,” Chappell said. “If that happened we could see the BLM designating critical habitat, and that is the fear of residents.”

In the past, the bird is believed to have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but today that number has been reduced to some 4,600 birds, explained Patty Gelatt, a USFWS supervisor for western Colorado. The survivors live in seven locations totaling 1 million acres in western Colorado and eastern Utah. The majority of the birds live in the Gunnison Basin and have a stable population there, due in part to significant local efforts.

“But the six satellite populations have been in decline in the past 12 years,” Gelatt said, including the Dove Creek/Monticello, Piñon Ridge (Grand Junction), San Miguel, Cimarron-Sims Mesa, Crawford, and Poncha Pass populations.

In 2001, there were an estimated 350 birds in the Dove Creek/Monticello region. That dropped to 162 birds in 2007, and declined again to 147 birds in 2012.