County adopts non-native species ban

Residents face fine, 12-month jail term for introducing endangered species on nonprivate land

A male sage grouse fights for the attention of female sage grouse southwest of Rawlins, Wyo. Enlargephoto

Associated Press file photo

A male sage grouse fights for the attention of female sage grouse southwest of Rawlins, Wyo.

Local residents found in violation of a new Montezuma County non-native animal species law, a Class 2 misdemeanor, could be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for 12 months.

Unanimously approved by Montezuma County commissioners on Monday, April 26, the mandate prohibits introducing any animal that is threatened or endangered into the exterior boundaries of county, unless its on private property and contained to said property; allowing the listed animals to migrate onto private property or establishing any protected habitat area for those same species without the county’s consent.

Commissioners have repeatedly stated the intent of the law was to safeguard against any federal encroachment of private property rights if the Gunnison sage grouse is listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Federal officials are expected to make an announcement regarding the bird’s listing on May 12.

A public hearing was held Monday before adopting the measure. Chester Tozer, a Road G resident, implied that commissioners should follow in the footsteps of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who last week was swept into a national media firestorm over his remarks that questioned whether blacks might be “better off as slaves, picking cotton.” Bundy has been running his cattle on federal lands and refusing to pay grazing fees for the past 20 years.

Tozer, reading from a letter penned by a retired wildlife biologist in Montana, argued against the Bureau of Land Management for utilizing a desert tortoise to prohibit Bundy’s grazing practices. Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel said he thought the analogy to Bundy’s issues over the desert tortoise fit perfectly with local concerns over the proposed listing of the Gunnison sage grouse.

“This listing of endangerment could be used as a tool to control other things than what they are talking about,” Ertel said. “That is my concern.”

Sheldon Zwicker, Tozer’s neighbor, also addressed county commissioners, stating he feared that environmentalists were using the Endangered Species Act as a “ploy to stop farming.” He said placing the Gunnison sage grouse on the Endangered Species Act could ultimately close farms and ranches in Montezuma County.

“I think what you all are doing is badly needed,” Zwicker told commissioners. “We gotta do something to stop this.”

Dexter Gill, a Lewis resident and retired forester, also addressed commissioners, telling them that environmentalists had waged a new war by utilizing photos of baby seals to play on people’s emotions.

“Today’s tool of war is the environment,” he said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager Matt Thorpe attended Monday’s hearing, but he did not make public comments. He later told the Cortez Journal he was there to serve as an advisor if commissioners had additional questions that arose during the hearing.

“The role of CPW in this type of proceeding is to be a resource for wildlife information to help inform the county as they make their decisions,” Thorpe said.

Thorpe visited with commissioners at a previous meeting in March, and expressed concerns then how the law might have had unintended consequences on routine management issues like stocking sport fish, which are almost all non-native.

Road K resident Mike Kistler posed a related question on Monday, asking how various species were being defined under the new law.

“They have to be non-native and listed as endangered or threatened,” explained County Attorney John Baxter.

Road G resident Fred Burt hesitated when the audience was asked for any additional comment, but he eventually made his way to the microphone. He told commissioners that all wildlife – elk, deer, trout, bass and even sage grouse – should be managed to ensure everyone could enjoy their natural beauty.

“We’re a civilized society, and there’s room for all God’s creatures,” Burt said.

Thorpe also noted that based on information he has received, none of the lands within Montezuma County were currently scheduled to be designated as critical habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse if it is listed as threatened or endangered.

“As far as I know, there have been no changes up to this point,” Thorpe said.

Reacting to Monday’s testimony about the federal government using the Endangered Species Act to take private lands and national plans to exclude human activity on large portions of public lands, Thorpe said those issues were far beyond the scope of CPW.

“These are complex issues, so it makes sense that there are a variety of opinions,” he added.

At Monday’s hearing, Commissioner Steve Chappel said the intent of the ordinance was to prohibit federal officials from planting any endangered or threatened species within the county. If that were to occur, he said development by Kinder Morgan, the county’s top taxpayer, could ultimately be disturbed.

“We’re just trying to get out in front and make sure we’re not stymied economically,” Chappel said.

Commissioner Larry Don Suckla piggybacked on Chappel’s remarks, stating without the ordinance, landowners could lose control over their private property rights.

“As an elected official, I don’t work for the government,” Suckla said. “I work for the taxpayers.”

“Hopefully, we’ve done this right,” he concluded after the ordinance was approved.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com