Drought, sage grouse discussed at meeting

The evening was full of pomp and circumstance, but the morning hours of the Southwestern Colorado Livestock Association's annual gathering on Saturday were marked by some serious agriculture policy talk.

A chain of speakers gave short speeches to an audience of more than 75 people at the Cortez Elks Lodge, mostly ranchers from Montezuma and Dolores counties.

County commissioners Steve Chappell, Keenan Ertel and Larry Don Suckla were on hand to offer remarks, as was Sheriff Dennis Spruell.

State Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, stopped in later to give updates on their work in the Colorado Legislature and House of Representatives, respectfully.

The prevailing sentiment was one of suspicion for government agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Officials from each agency spoke to issues of import for the ranching community and tried to assuage their worries over regulations and property rights.

San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles began by saying the fee for grazing privileges on public lands will remain at $1.35 per animal in 2013, the same as 2012.

Much of the discussion centered on drought.

In short, 2012 was brutal. Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, called it the "driest year on record" since McPhee Reservoir filled in 1986.

"We used every drop of allocated water," he said, adding that Southwest Colorado began 2012 with a surplus of water from the previous year. Farmers and ranchers won't have the same cushion in 2013.

"Reservoir levels are 100,000 acre feet lower than this time last year," he said.

Despite recent storms bringing snowpack to near normal levels, Stiles cautioned that soil moisture was still very low.

Depending on precipitation levels the rest of winter and early spring, Stiles said ranchers could see a "later than normal range-readiness date."

"The total season could be shorter," he said.

Connie Clementson, manager of the BLM's Tres Rios Field Office in Dolores, echoed Stiles' concerns about drought.

"We could have problems if our moisture doesn't stack up," she said.

Paul White, executive director of the Montezuma County Farm Service Agency, said dry weather accounted for a 60 percent loss of available grazing land in 2012 in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties.

Ranchers who grazed land consumed by the 10,000-acre Weber Fire last summer will have to find greener pastures in the near term. Tom Rice, also with the Tres Rios office, said the charred land will take two or three years to recover.

The youth suspected of starting the fire will go on trial in federal court in Durango this week, but the proceedings will be closed to the public to protect his identity as a minor.

Several ranchers complained about the high rate of turnover among rangeland conservationists - or "range cons" - who oversee grazing permits.

Clementson acknowledged their frustration, but emphasized that "moving up the ladder" and transferring to other posts was part and parcel of federal government work.

For much of the morning, the proverbial elephant in the room was no pachyderm, but a certain flightless bird in the headlines lately.

One month ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Populations have dwindled to an estimated 4,600 birds across seven isolated landscapes in western Colorado and eastern Utah. The largest cluster, in the Gunnison Basin, is holding steady, but the others are vulnerable.

Estimates are rough, but Monticello/Dove Creek groupings is thought to have only 150 grouse remaining. Biologists have been working to diversify the gene pool by importing birds from the Gunnison Basin, said Matt Hammond of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

If the grouse is granted endangered status, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will designate nearly 350,000 acres of Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan (Utah) counties as "critical habitat," although the birds have only been seen on about one third of that territory. The critical habitat includes private, county and BLM-owned land.

The potential endangered classification hasn't gone over well with the ranching community, who fear efforts to protect the grouse will impinge upon their property rights. Those suspicions were evident Saturday.

Clementson tried to placate. She said oil and gas development and recreation have been more responsible for fragmenting grouse habitat than agriculture, and thus are more at-risk for curtailing.

"In the Gunnison Basin - where the grouse population is stable - we've seen that grazing and critical habitat (conservation) are compatible," she said.

Comments about the endangered listing and critical habitat designation can be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until March 12.

Tipton and Coram spoke at length about water rights.

They denounced a proposed EPA rule that, depending on interpretation, could expand the Clean Water Act to include non-navigable waters like culverts, ditches and ponds. As it stands, the act permits the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to regulate navigable, interstate and wetland waterways.

Tipton was pleased the Obama administration scrapped a proposed Department of Labor policy that would have restricted minors from certain farm activities, like operating heavy machinery, handling pesticides, and working in stockyards and silos. But he said the rural advocates must remain vigilant.

"In Washington, things have a way of coming back," he said, making a "Whack-a-Mole" analogy.

Tipton said he plans to reintroduce two bills he sponsored last session: a wildfire management bill to give states and counties more control over mitigation, and a bill to allow small hydroelectric units in irrigation ditches to generate electricity.

The conversation at times meandered away from agricultural matters. Spruell, without prompting, reassured the audience that he would never cease to protect his constituents' Second Amendment rights.

"I won't knock on doors and ask for guns. I wouldn't get past the first house - I'd get shot (if I tried)," he said to nods of approval.