SALT LAKE CITY — A newly-released economic analysis predicts that federal protection of Gunnison sage grouse habitat in Utah and Colorado will cost as much as $12 million over the next 20 years.
Prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and accompanied by a draft environmental analysis, the study examined the potential impacts if the chicken-sized bird is merely listed, or if 1.7 million acres of land is also designated as critical habit.
The proposal, made available Wednesday, set aside the land for protection of the bird under the Endangered Species Act, which means it will be much more costly to save the animal.
Impacts will play out in seven key areas: livestock grazing, agriculture, mineral and fossil fuel extraction, residential development, renewable energy development, recreation and transportation.
The service noted that it will use its draft environmental assessment to help decide whether critical habitat will be designated as it is proposing, if changes need to be made, or additional analysis is warranted.
It is estimated that the Gunnison sage grouse has been whittled down to just 4,600 birds existing in seven distinct population units in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The bird occupies only 7 percent of its historic range because of a wide range of threats that include habitat fragmentation brought on by wildfires, fencing, power lines and development.
Only about 120 of the birds exist in Utah in the southeastern section of the state in San Juan County, where an active, on-the-ground conservation effort has been underway since the mid-1990s, before the bird was even recognized as a distinct species in 2000.
The bird is known as an “indicator” species for shrub-steppe habitat, meaning if it is not doing well, the entire ecosystem that supports it is also in peril.
Monitoring by Utah biologists from 1972 to 1999 — based on counts of breeding pairs in San Juan County — showed declines in populations by as much as 75 percent.
The threatened listing, announced in January, stoked harsh criticism and quick action by Utah lawmakers, who rushed to pass a resolution urging that Utah be exempted from any federal consideration of the listing.
The proposed listing impacts 348,353 acres in the Dove Creek Monticello Unit, which includes a section of San Juan County, and 245,179 acres in the Pinion Mesa Unit which creeps into a small section of Grand County.
In the analysis, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that modifications to grazing units and ranching practices would result in a loss of $1.4 million in livestock production and 12 jobs over the 20-year-period throughout the region, or less than 1 percent of the total regional output.
It noted that in Utah, active oil and gas wells could stand to lose $200,000 annually and there would be a decrease of nearly $60,000 in taxes to the government. Potential losses are harder to quantify, the service said, because of oil and gas companies that would be enticed to drill elsewhere to avoid the extra layer of regulations.
The analysis also predicted problems with residential development on both public and private land, with hitches that could occur with the planned 489-acre Elk Meadows development in San Juan County and a proposed subdivision that would be two miles south of Monticello.
Much of those costs that would be realized over the next two decades would come administratively, as federal land managers meet with industry and others to map out projects with the least debilitating impacts to the birds. At least one of those would involve the developers of a wind farm planned for San Juan County and a proposed potash operation in Montrose County, Colo.
Utah politicians who pushed Utah's exemption said the proposal would impact too much private land where the bird's habitat occurs.
While San Juan County is Utah’s largest in land mass, only 8 percent of it is not owned by the federal government, which critics say already leaves private property owners such as ranchers and farmers at a disadvantage.
The service is accepting comments on its proposal until Oct. 19 and has scheduled a pair of public information sessions and hearings to solicit feedback.
The first is Oct. 7 at Western State Colorado University, University Center, 600 N. Adams Street, Gunnison, with an information session from 4 to 5 p.m., followed by a public hearing from 6 to 9 p.m. The second session is Oct. 8 at Monticello High School Auditorium, 164 S. 200 West, with an information session from 4 to 5 p.m., and a public hearing from 6 to 9 p.m.
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