Gunnison sage grouse remains in county crosshairs

Although the Gunnison sage grouse roamed Montezuma County 50 years ago, county officials are moving forward to circumvent any federal requirements of local property owners if the elusive bird is listed as threatened or endangered.

A state wildlife official informed Montezuma County commissioners on Monday, March 17, that records dating back to the 1960s confirm that the Gunnison sage grouse once populated Montezuma County. Despite the news, county attorney John Baxter presented commissioners with the third, and latest, draft of the proposed non-native animal species ordinance.

“The ordinance would serve as a line of demarcation,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel.

The county’s proposed mandate specifically addresses animals that are listed or proposed for listing as threatened or endangered. The ordinance also includes the prohibition of establishing protected habitat areas without the county’s consent.

“We’re here to protect our residents and their private land,” added Montezuma County Commissioner Steve Chappell.

The new law is subject to a public hearing on April 21.

In part, the proposed ordinance states the introduction of threatened or endangered species would have “profound and adverse impacts on ecosystems and wildlife” as well as place the “health, safety, welfare and economic viability of Montezuma County residents and property owners” in jeopardy.

“If we don’t do this, our farmers and ranchers will be endangered,” said County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla.

A state wildlife official, however, told commissioners the proposed non-native animal species ordinance could have “unintended consequences.”

“The Gunnison sage grouse were native to Montezuma County,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager Matt Thorpe.

Thorpe said he was merely addressing commissioners in an advisory role, adding he didn’t want to complicate relationships between state wildlife officials and county commissioners.

“I’d suggest we work together to formulate memorandums of agreement in the future to do stuff outside the box,” Thorpe told commissioners.

Thorpe also attempted to quell commissioners’ concerns that a federal proposal to list the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered or threatened species would impact property owners in Montezuma County.

“The feds aren’t proposing any stipulations to protect critical habitat in Montezuma County,” he added.

Federal officials are expected to decide if the Gunnison sage grouse should be listed as an endangered or threatened species in May.

Also last week, county officials approved the continued expansion of oil and gas exploration by Kinder Morgan, North America’s third largest energy company.

After no comments were received either in support or in opposition to two high impact special use permits at a public hearing last week, Montezuma County commissioners unanimously approved both Kinder Morgan applications. The permits allow the company to construct a fifth carbon dioxide (CO2) production well along with a new pipeline cluster facility nine miles west of Pleasant View in Cow Canyon. Construction could start in June.

“This is just one aspect of the project,” Kinder Morgan agent Bob Clayton told commissioners.

Valued at $110 billion, Kinder Morgan plans to expand its CO2 production even further in Cow Canyon. County records indicate the company plans to construct a total of 30 new production wells across some 250 acres of private and public property in Cow Canyon. Clayton added a total of four pipeline cluster facilities were also expected.

Kinder Morgan produces 1.3 billion cubic feet per day of CO2 from Southwest Colorado. Known as enhanced oil recovery, the CO2 is piped to oilfields in Texas where it is used to help extract more oil from near-depleted wells.

Kinder Morgan officials have said the $350 million expansion into Cow Canyon could add an additional 200 million cubic feet per day of CO2 to the company’s total production.

About six percent of Kinder Morgan’s 11,500 employees work in Colorado. The company has produced CO2 in southwestern Colorado since 1984.