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Enviros and San Miguel County sue to protect sage grouse

Lawsuit alleges lack of environmental studies invalidates lease sales

Three environmental groups, along with San Miguel County, have filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management alleging improper approval of oil and gas lease sales near the threatened Gunnison sage grouse.

San Juan Citizens Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild, Conservation Colorado and San Miguel County argue that the BLM failed to properly consider the impacts of drilling activity on the bird, which was listed at threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014.

They want the court to set aside 10 lease parcels sold in March in western San Miguel county to allow for additional studies.

Eight of the leases, located in the Dry Creek Basin area, are tucked between two occupied critical habitat areas of the Gunnsion sage grouse.

Jimbo Buickerood, of San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the BLM’s reliance on a Resource Management Plan from 2015 to satisfy federal environmental requirements for the lease sale is noncompliant.

“The larger management plan looks at a broad area from 100,000 feet level, and does not get near the ground for the specific analysis appropriate to protect the sage grouse,” he said.

For example, the complaint says more study is needed on impacts of expected truck traffic on lease access roads, which pass through occupied sage grouse habitat and are within 1.9 miles of “leks,” sensitive breeding areas where males conduct elaborate mating dances.

Plaintiffs are also concerned that the approved leases don’t allow the BLM to adjust or terminate company development plans that threaten the bird’s habitat during the next permit stage, called the application for permit to drill, or APD.

“They are supposed to do real analysis at the leasing stage, because if you don’t do it then, it is not going to happen at the drilling permit stage,” Buickerood said.

According to the lawsuit, leasewide, no-surface occupancy conditions cannot be imposed at the APD level, and neither can leasewide travel bans and restrictions be imposed, if needed.

“The lease terms do not confirm BLM’s statutory power to deny or require alterations to APDs that are likely to take (harm) Endangered Species Act-listed species,” the lawsuit states.

It further claims that under the Endangered Species Act, energy leases that “may affect” Gunnison sage grouse are not valid without consultation from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which the lawsuit alleges was not done properly.

San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper said the county joined the lawsuit because commissioners fear that mismanaged energy development could derail their efforts to improve the bird’s population and get it removed from the Endangered Species Act list.

“We’ve worked really hard with neighboring counties and CPW to improve conditions for this bird through land-use planning, habitat projects and conservation easements,” she said in a phone interview. “We’re asking the BLM to take a step back and more carefully review potential impacts of drilling, including transportation.”

Cooper said her constituents understand that failure to improve the bird’s numbers risks elevating it from threatened to endangered status.

“They know that would have impacts on private property within sage grouse habitat,” she said.

Environmentalists are also concerned that two of the leases overlap or are adjacent to the nominated Dry Creek Basin Area of Critical Environmental Concern, proposed to protect Gunnison sage grouse habitat.

The current rangewide population of the Gunnison sage grouse is estimated at 5,000 birds across the seven population areas. The largest population, about 4,000 birds, inhabits the Gunnison Basin, and the rest are spread out in seven populations in Southwest Colorado and Southeast Utah. They include Piñon Mesa, Crawford, San Miguel Basin, Gunnison Basin, Dove Creek, Cerro Cimarron-Sim and Poncha Pass. The Utah population is near Monticello.

“Due to their small population numbers and genetic isolation, theses satellite populations are important to the overall survival of the species,” according to a press release announcing the lawsuit.

When contacted regarding the lawsuit, the BLM said it could not comment on ongoing legal actions.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com

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