Montezuma County proposal would ban non-native species

Ban appears to target sage grouse, but includes common animals, crops

A male sage grouse seeks the attention of a female. Enlargephoto

A male sage grouse seeks the attention of a female.

A proposed ordinance by the Montezuma County commissioners that would prohibit the introduction of native species within county borders is facing criticism from farmers and ranchers.

The ordinance states that “no person, federal or state agency, corporation, or entity shall knowingly or recklessly introduce, move, place, or transport any non-native species into the exterior boundaries of Montezuma County.”

Ordinance 1-2014 also prohibits non-native species to be introduced onto p rivate land within the county, and prohibits any entity from designating habitat, protected areas, or other similar designations on private lands without express written approval from both Montezuma County and the private land owner.

But the ramifications of prohibiting non-native species has farmers and ranchers concerned. Many components of modern agriculture involve non-native species, including cattle, horses, lamas, alfalfa, wheat, and genetically modified seeds for crops.

In an interview, Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said the ordinance was intended to prevent introduction of the Gunnison sage grouse and endangered native fish into the county.

“It is a work in progress, and I have the feeling there will be some changes,” Suckla said. “We're trying to head off habitat designation for the sage grouse here. It is non-native to Montezuma County.”

Suckla said the ordinance was drafted in cooperation with attorney John Baxter as a way to prevent negative consequences to agriculture from the introduction of threatened and/or endangered species, but Suckla admitted there has been some backlash.

“It was meant to get the conversation going on the problematic issue of endangered species,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is hurt the very people we are trying to protect. If there is overwhelming objection to the ordinance from the public, I would reconsider or amend it.”

A public hearing on the proposed ordinance is scheduled for Feb. 24 in county commissioner chambers, according to county administrator Melissa Brunner, but not time has been announced as of yet.

“I think it is far more restrictive then they thought; I think it is overreaching,” said Phyllis Snyder, a local rancher and Colorado Farm Bureau boardmember. “I understand their intent, but it seems to make regular farm operations illegal.”

Fish stocking questioned

Some ranchers are suspicious of efforts by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to protect native fish in the region.

In October, a mini-drama played out when rancher Sheldon Zwicker got word that wildlife officials were stocking fish in McElmo Creek from one of his bridges.

In an affidavit filed with the county, Zwicker describes the incident in which he and neighbor Chester Tozer confront U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials about their fish stocking efforts.

“I had watched two men take two five-gallon buckets (and) dump the contents into the creek from off my bridge,” Zwicker writes. “When they saw me coming (on foot), they quickly threw the buckets into the pickup and sped away.”

When the biologists returned, Zwicker pursued them in a vehicle with his wife Naomi, picking up Tozer along the way.

Just before the Utah state line, “we spotted them the vehicle down by the creek . . . we drove down and parked right in front of their vehicle as the two men were getting into their vehicle. We got out and they did also.”

When asked what they were doing, according to the affidavit, the biologists said “they were dumping humpback chubs in the creek to increase the population to keep them off the federally endangered species list.”

Zwicker said humpback chubs are an endangered species, but they are not known to exist in the McElmo Creek drainage. During the same meeting, according to the affidavit, “his partner told us the fish were round-tail chubs and were not on the endangered list.”

Access to private property at that location was also challenged by Zwicker. He said the men did not have permission to enter his land, but the biologists reported they had permission ten years ago and either the property had changed hands or the agreement has been forgotten.

Exactly which fish were being stocked is unclear. Roundtail chubs are not a federally listed endangered species. The roundtail is adapted to pool conditions on creeks and rivers like McElmo Creek, and can handle silty conditions.

Commissioner Suckla said the concern is that “the wildlife officials will try to come back around and try and list McElmo Creek as habitat for endangered fish that are not naturally there, so that is a huge concern.”

The mistrust triggered meetings with wildlife authorities and was the reasoning behind the proposed non-native species ordinance, Suckla said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife also is aware of the ordinance, said Patt Dorsey, Southwest region manager, and they look forward to further conversation on the proposed regulation with the county. Non-native sport fish such as rainbow trout and bass are stocked in area lakes and rivers. Other wildlife are non-native such as moose and the ring-necked pheasant.

“Any new policy or regulation can have ripple affects,” Dorsey said. “It merits more discussion. We have a good working relationship with the county and keeping communication open is better for everyone.”

Farm Bureau response

In an e-mail to the Cortez Journal, Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said the proposed new law will not be effective as written.

“To prohibit the movement of any non-native species into or through a county as proposed is too far reaching, impractical and certainly not worded to accomplish good for the county,” Shawcroft writes. “If Montezuma County commissioners want to prevent the designation of critical habitat as a result of species being imported or encouraged to migrate into the county, there must be a better way.”

Farmers hoping to grow hemp under new guidelines from the Colorado Department of Agriculture also have expressed concerns about the ordinance. Hemp, a genetic strain of Cannabis, is non-native and grown to produce oils and textiles. But Suckla said the intent of the ordinance was not to ban industrial hemp either, a crop he is interested in exploring as a possible new crop for the area.

“I am open to discussions about hemp, but I cannot speak for the other commissioners,” he said.

Snyder and Shawcroft, of the Farm Bureau listed other potential conflicts with the ordinance. Genetically modified silage corn seed, non-native grass hay species, and new strains of alfalfa could also be affected if the ordinance were to be passed, Snyder said.

“As written, this ordinance could prohibit many agricultural and other common practices,” wrote Shawcroft. “People's pets, gardens, raising livestock, producing corn and alfalfa, all could be impacted because of non-native status.”

Jim Hutchinson examines the sage grouse habitat that is claimed to be in Dolores County. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Jim Hutchinson examines the sage grouse habitat that is claimed to be in Dolores County.