Grouse wins a pardon – at least until May

Commission plans ruling on non-native species in spring

A male sage grouse fights for the attention of a female sage grouse in Wyoming. Enlargephoto

File photo

A male sage grouse fights for the attention of a female sage grouse in Wyoming.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials expect to make a final decision on proposals to protect the Gunnison sage grouse and its critical habitat by May 12.

To beat the clock, Montezuma County commissioners are rushing to enact an ordinance that wouldn’t require property owners to take any measure to protect the grouse or its habitat. Currently, the Gunnison sage grouse is found only in Southwest Colorado and extreme southeast Utah.

Introduced to commissioners on Monday, March 10, a second draft proposal of a county ordinance prohibiting the introduction of non-native animal species and the establishment of protected habitat areas in Montezuma County aims to stop federal officials from having authority over property rights if the sage grouse is included on the list of endangered species.

“I want the ordinance to say sage grouse and sage grouse habitat,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla. “I do have an agenda: no sage grouse in Montezuma County.”

In September 2010, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials determined that the Gunnison sage grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act. There are no known grouse in Montezuma County, but it’s unclear if they were once native here. About 150 birds are thought to live on private and public lands in Dolores County.

One resident at Monday’s meeting said he believed the ordinance should be narrowed to include all “threatened or endangered” species, saying federal officials were trying to leverage the sage grouse as a means to stop economic development. He said that adding specific animals – including the spotted owl and humpback chub, for example, could stop federal officials from restricting private land use if other endangered species were added later.

“The Endangered Species Act is unconstitutional,” the resident said. “It should not exist.”

To avert litigation, county attorney John Baxter recommended the statute not include a specific species, such as the sage grouse. He said that omitting specific species from the ordinance would offer the county a better defense if litigation arose.

“In court, we would have to justify why certain animals were included in the ordinance,” Baxter said.

A draft of the ordinance submitted to county officials last month created confusion. The second draft included two basic changes.

“This new draft is for non-native animal species only,” Baxter explained. “It doesn’t include any plants or seeds.”

Baxter said the new draft wouldn’t interfere with property owners, including ranchers with camels or llamas, for example, but the proposed ordinance would prohibit such animals not on private property.

“If it’s on your property, the county government is not going to interfere,” Baxter said.

Another resident voiced concerns over which agency has the authority to distinguish a native versus non-native animal, saying that cows and horses aren’t natives.

Baxter said the ordinance was not intended to outlaw a non-native bull, for example, adding the new ordinance would require any landowner to seek county approval before introducing a non-native species into Montezuma County.

Commissioners Steve Chappell and Keenan Ertel were in agreement that the ordinance should not impose greater regulations on property owners.

“It gets more and more confusing the further we go,” said Ertel. “There’s a multitude of possibilities with a multitude of potential disasters.”

After much discussion, county commissioners agreed to table the measure to allow Baxter to fine-tune the ordinance. The measure will be discussed again at next week’s meeting on Monday, March 17.

“We need to take a closer look at this,” Chappell said. “I don’t want to get it wrong.”

Designed to protect critically imperiled species from extinction as a consequence of economic growth and development, the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973.

According to the Audubon Society, the Gunnison sage grouse is confined to seven islands of sagebrush in Colorado and one in Utah, with a range at 10 percent of its historical size.

The Audubon lists the small, dark turkey-like bird as one of the top 10 endangered species in North America.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com