#SageGrouse: Historic Conservation Campaign Protects Greater Sage-Grouse

Here’s the release from Secretary Jewell:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines federal land management plans and partnerships with states, ranchers, and NGOs avert ESA listing by conserving America’s “Sagebrush Sea”

An unprecedented, landscape-scale conservation effort across the western United States has significantly reduced threats to the greater sage-grouse across 90 percent of the species’ breeding habitat and enabled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to conclude that the charismatic rangeland bird does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This collaborative, science-based greater sage-grouse strategy is the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history.

Secretary Jewell made the announcement earlier today on Twitter with a video that explains why the sage grouse decision is historic and sets the groundwork for a 21st-century approach to conservation.

The FWS reached this determination after evaluating the bird’s population status, along with the collective efforts by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, state agencies, private landowners and other partners to conserve its habitat. Despite long-term population declines, sage-grouse remain relatively abundant and well-distributed across the species’ 173-million acre range. After a thorough analysis of the best available scientific information and taking into account ongoing key conservation efforts and their projected benefits, the FWS has determined the bird does not face the risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future and therefore does not need protection under the ESA.

“This is truly a historic effort – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation – ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife that we do today. The epic conservation effort will benefit westerners and hundreds of species that call this iconic landscape home, while giving states, businesses and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development.”

Jewell made the announcement at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge today alongside Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Bonnie, FWS Director Dan Ashe, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Tom Tidwell, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller, and U.S. Geological Survey Acting Director Suzette Kimball.

“Today’s decision reflects the joint efforts by countless ranchers and partners who have worked so hard to conserve wildlife habitat and preserve the Western way of life,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Together, we have shown that voluntary efforts joining the resources of private landowners, federal and state agencies, and partner organizations can help drive landscape-level conservation that is good for sage-grouse, ranching operations, and rural communities. Through the comprehensive initiatives on both public and private lands, the partnership has made and will continue to make monumental strides in supporting the people and wildlife that depend on the sagebrush landscape.”

The FWS’s September 30, 2015 deadline to review the status of the species spurred numerous federal agencies, the 11 states in the range, and dozens of public and private partners to undertake an extraordinary campaign to protect, restore and enhance important sage-grouse habitat to preclude the need to list the species. This effort featured: new management direction for BLM and Forest Service land use plans that place greater emphasis on conserving sage-grouse habitat; development of state sage-grouse management plans; voluntary, multi-partner private lands effort to protect millions of acres of habitat on ranches and rangelands across the West; unprecedented collaboration with federal, state and private sector scientists; and a comprehensive strategy to fight rangeland fires.

“We’ve written an important chapter in sage-grouse conservation, but the story is far from over,” said Director Ashe. “By building on the partnerships we’ve forged and continuing conservation efforts under the federal and state plans, we will reap dividends for sage-grouse, big game and other wildlife while protecting a way of life in the West. That commitment will ensure that our children and grandchildren will inherit the many benefits that this rich but imperiled landscape has to offer.”

The BLM and USFS today announced that they have issued Records of Decisions finalizing the 98 land use plans that will help conserve greater sage-grouse habitat and support sustainable economic development on portions of public lands in 10 states across the West. The land use plans were developed during over a multi-year process in partnership with the states and local partners, guided by the best available science and technical advice from the FWS. The BLM and USFS also initiated today the public comment process associated with their proposal to withdraw a subset of lands that are sage-grouse strongholds from future mining claims. More information on the plans is available here . More information on the proposed mineral withdrawal is available here.

The future of the sage-grouse depends on the successful implementation of the federal and state management plans and the actions of private landowners, as well as a continuing focus on reducing invasive grasses and controlling rangeland fire. The FWS has committed to monitoring all of the continuing efforts and population trends, as well as to reevaluating the status of the species in five years.

The greater sage-grouse is an umbrella species, emblematic of the health of sagebrush habitat it shares with more than 350 other kinds of wildlife, including world-class populations of mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and golden eagles. In 2010, the Service determined that the greater sage-grouse warranted ESA protection because of population declines caused by loss and fragmentation of its sagebrush habitat, coupled with a lack of regulatory mechanisms to control habitat loss. However, the need to address higher-priority listing actions precluded the Service from taking action to list the bird. Since that time, actions from state, federal and private partners have added needed protections, increasing certainty that this important habitat will be protected.

Roughly half of the sage-grouse’s habitat is on federal lands, most of it managed by the BLM and USFS. These tend to be drier uplands where the birds mate, nest and spend fall and winter. While the federal plans differ in specifics to reflect local landscapes, threats and conservation approaches, their overall goal is to prevent further degradation of the best remaining sage-grouse habitat, minimize disturbance where possible and mitigate unavoidable impacts by protecting and improving similar habitat.

About 45 percent of the grouse’s habitat is on state and private lands, which often include the wetter meadows and riparian habitat that are essential for young chicks. Efforts by private landowners in undertaking voluntary sage-grouse conservation have been an important element in the campaign. While private lands programs differ, each works with ranchers, landowners and other partners on long-term agreements to undertake proactive conservation measures that benefit sage-grouse.

Through the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative, more than 1,100 ranchers have restored or conserved approximately 4.4 million acres of key habitat. Through the recently-announced SGI 2.0 strategy, USDA expects voluntary, private land conservation efforts to reach 8 million acres by 2018. On private and federal lands, the FWS and BLM have received commitments on 5.5 million acres through Candidate Conservation Agreements. Many of these projects also improve grazing and water supplies for ranchers, benefitting cattle herds and the long-term future of ranching in the West.

States in the sage-grouse’s range have been engaged in this collaborative process. For example, Wyoming has been implementing its “core area” strategy for more than five years. Montana has committed to implement a similar plan that would set standards for managing private and state lands to meet sage-grouse conservation goals. Similarly, Oregon has adopted an “all lands” strategy for greater sage-grouse conservation. Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Idaho have also developed strategies to improve state and private land management to benefit the sage-grouse.

Greater sage-grouse once occupied more than 290 million acres of sagebrush in the West. Early European settlers reported seeing millions of birds take to the skies. But the bird, known for its flamboyant mating ritual, has lost almost half of its habitat since then.

Despite losses, sage-grouse populations are still relatively large and well-distributed across the range. The FWS anticipates that some sage-grouse populations may continue to decline in parts of the range, as conservation efforts begin to take effect. Other populations appear to be rebounding as they enter a rising period in their decadal population cycle, which can fluctuate by as much 30 to 40 percent. The FWS has found conservation measures will slow and then stabilize the loss of habitat across the range, securing the species success into the future.

For more information about the greater sage-grouse and this decision, including reports, maps, myths and facts and Secretary’s Jewell’s video announcing the USFWS decision, please see http://www.doi.gov/sagegrouse.

From the Associated Press (Matthew Brown and Mead Gruver):

Tuesday’s announcement signaled that the Obama administration believes it has struck a delicate balance to save the birds from extinction without crippling the West’s economy. It also could help defuse a potential political liability for Democrats heading into the 2016 election — federal protections could have brought much more sweeping restrictions on oil and gas drilling, grazing and other human activities from California to the Dakotas.

The government was providing some level of habitat protections on 67 million acres of federal lands, including 12 million acres where strict limits on oil and gas limits will be enforced, an aide to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said. That’s more than a third of the animal’s total range and does not include millions of acres of private land shielded by conservation easements.

“It’s the most complex, the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history,” Jewell adviser Sarah Greenberger said. “This model of science-based, landscape-level conservation is truly the future of conservation.”

Jewell and the governors of Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Nevada were to make a formal announcement later in the day at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge just north of Denver.

From Conservation Colorado (Chris Arend):

Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith released the following statement on the U.S. Department of Interior’s announcement on Greater sage grouse:

“This is an historic decision that marks a critical point in one of this nation’s most ambitious and historic planning initiatives to save the iconic Greater sage grouse and its vast and under appreciated sagebrush home. The scope and scale of this unprecedented effort is astounding. It highlights that through collaboration, diverse interests can achieve unbelievable results – focusing on a shared goal and not our perceived differences.

We believe that comprehensive development and implementation of federal and state land use and Greater sage grouse plans will provide the opportunity to go above and beyond the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

However, it is critical that we work together to implement BLM plans and ensure every state plan is striving to complement important conservation objectives on private and state lands. These plans working together can ensure that Greater sage grouse and our sagebrush landscapes remain healthy and productive for generations to enjoy.

This landmark decision would not have been possible without the foresight and leadership of President Obama, Secretary Sally Jewell and our Governor John Hickenlooper. We all understand this is not the end. We will need to continue working with our state and federal partners to ensure this plan is effectively implemented for the long term viability of this bird and our critical sagebrush seas.”

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

A chicken-size forager famed for fancy mating displays, greater sage grouse once numbered in the millions but have declined to an estimated 200,000 to 500,000. Survivors are clumped around 165 million acres stretching from Colorado up to the Dakotas and out to California — also home to 300 other species including golden eagles.

“It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation — ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife that we do today,” Jewell said.

Newly launched state-led conservation projects “will ensure that abundant greater sage grouse populations will continue to be distributed across the range into the foreseeable future,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director Gary Frazer said Monday in a discussion with reporters.

“The service has concluded that the greater sage grouse does not meet the definition of a threatened or endangered species and does not warrant listing,” Frazer said. “We will continue to participate in and monitor the conservation efforts and population trends, and we will re-evaluate the status of the species in five years.”

Finally, here’s Governor Hickenlooper’s release:

Gov. John Hickenlooper issued the following statement after the announcement by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that it has issued a “non-warranted decision” in regard to a potential listing of the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act:

“Secretary Jewell and her agencies have recognized the results of significant conservation efforts that have dramatically improved sage grouse habitat in Colorado and across 11 western states. Landowners, regional industries, and local, state and federal government have worked in close collaboration over many years. These improvements will enhance not only sage grouse, but also all manner of wildlife that are a crucial part of what makes Colorado and the American west the unique place that it is.”

Sage Grouse in winter photo via Middle Colorado Watershed Council
Sage Grouse in winter photo via Middle Colorado Watershed Council

Hopes high for a ‘Super’ El Niño — the High Country News

From the High Country News (Sarah Tory):

El Niño is upon us and it’s shaping up to be a big one – so big that scientists have amused themselves coming up with new terms for the coming weather phenomenon. Bill Patzert of NASA coined the term “Godzilla El Niño.” Another meteorologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who loves kung fu compared it to famed martial arts star Bruce Lee…

This year, many global weather models are signaling that we’re in for a whopper of an El Niño. In fact, some indicate that we appear to be on track to experience one of the strongest El Niños on record. Still, Klaus Wolter, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, cautions against getting too caught up in the hype. “There’s always a race for the biggest epithet,” he says. El Niños can vary in strength, and it’s impossible to know yet just how big a punch this one will deliver. The latest models show the current El Niño as the second strongest on record for this time of year (it typically peaks in winter), but some models have scaled back their predictions of a “Super” El Niño. That’s not uncommon: Last year, the odds of a “Super” El Niño occurring diminished substantially — from close to 80 percent earlier in the summer down to 65 percent by August…

Southwest

In contrast to the Northwest, El Niño means good news for Arizona and New Mexico (though as the recent flash flood deaths in Utah reveal, heavy rain in desert areas can be dangerous too). They’ll likely see a wet winter and spring. Similarly, in the southern Rockies, El Niño will tilt the odds in favor of a snowy winter, a boon to ski resorts that make up much of the region’s tourism economy. However, more central and northern parts of the Rockies, extending into Wyoming, will probably suffer relatively dry winters – until spring that is, when El Niño could deliver some mega-storms.

Overall, the prognosis is mixed for the fragile Colorado River Basin and its shrinking reservoirs. Decades of over-allocation and a 15-year warm spell have pushed Lake Mead just inches from unprecedented mandatory water restrictions. In general, the pattern of past El Niños does not correlate well with total runoff, says [Klaus Wolter], since dry winters tend to cancel out wet springs. But as this year proved, a spring boost could give the Basin states some breathing room.

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#WISE Water Project Receives Unprecedented Statewide Support — South Metro Water Supply Authority

WISE System Map via the South Metro Water Supply Authority
WISE System Map via the South Metro Water Supply Authority

Here’s the release from the South Metro Water Supply Authority (Russ Rizzo):

The WISE water project today received unprecedented statewide support, becoming the first water infrastructure project in Colorado to receive funding from Basin Roundtables across the state.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board approved $905,000 in state and regional grant funding for the WISE (Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency) project, including funds from seven of the state’s nine Basin Roundtables.

“We are excited and grateful for the broad, statewide support for this important project,” said Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, which represents 13 water providers comprising most of Douglas County and a portion of Arapahoe County. “This is a significant part of our region’s plan to transition to a more secure and sustainable water supply, and benefits of WISE extend throughout the region and to the West Slope.”

WISE is a partnership among Aurora Water, Denver Water and South Metro Water to combine available water supplies and system capacities to create a sustainable new water supply. Aurora and Denver will provide fully treated water to South Metro Water on a permanent basis. WISE also will enable Denver Water to access its supplies during periods when it needs to. All of this will be accomplished while allowing Aurora to continue to meet its customers’ current and future needs.

“This project is reflective of the regional and statewide collaboration the State Water Plan calls for to meet the future water needs of Coloradans,” said former State Representative Diane Hoppe, chair of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “The broad financial support from Basin Roundtables across the state reflects the cooperation and smart approach that the Denver metro area’s leading water providers have taken.”

The Basin Roundtables, created in 2005 with the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, represent each of the state’s eight major river basins and the Denver metropolitan area. The grants are part of the state’s Water Supply Reserve Accounts program that assists Colorado water users in addressing their critical water supply issues and interests.

Roundtables that have committed funds to WISE so far include:

Metro Basin Roundtable
South Platte Basin Roundtable
North Platte Basin Roundtable
Colorado Basin Roundtable
Arkansas Basin Roundtable
Gunnison Basin Roundtable
Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable

“The Colorado Basin applauds the WISE participants for their forward thinking and collaborative approach,” said Jim Pokrandt, chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which includes Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs. “WISE benefits not just the Front Range but the West Slope as well. The project enables the metro region to re-use its trans-mountain supplies, thereby reducing the need to look to other regions for water supply. In addition, the WISE agreement is an integral part of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement under which the West Slope receives funding to help meet our water project and environmental needs.”

Construction on the WISE project began in June and will continue into 2016. When WISE begins delivering water in 2016:

●The South Denver Metro area will receive a significant new renewable water supply;
●Denver will receive a new backup water supply;
●Aurora will receive funding from partners to help offset its Prairie Waters Project costs and stabilize water rates; and
●The West Slope will receive new funding, managed by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, for water supply, watershed and water quality projects.

Securing a Sustainable Water Supply for South Metro Denver

South Metro Water and its 13 water provider members are executing a plan to transition to renewable supplies. The plan focuses on three areas: conservation and efficiency; infrastructure investment; and partnership among local and regional water suppliers.

The region has made tremendous progress over the past decade, reducing per capita water use by more than 30 percent and adding new renewable water supplies and storage capacity that have significantly decreased reliance on nonrenewable groundwater.

For details on the WISE project as well as South Metro Water’s plan to transition to renewable water supplies, visit http://www.southmetrowater.org.

#COWaterPlan: Pueblo County files comments

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Pueblo County commissioners say the state should be a referee, rather than a sponsor, in future water projects and they want to emphasize local regulation.

“The county’s experience has been that federal and state regulations and enforcement alone have been inadequate to protect against local impacts of water projects,” the commissioners wrote in comments on the state water plan filed last week.

The deadline for comments was Thursday. Commissioners Liane “Buffie” McFadyen, Terry Hart and Sal Pace jointly signed the letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, who are working to finish the plan by December.

The commissioners want to make sure that the state water plan does not undermine the authority of the state’s counties and cities to regulate water projects under laws such as HB1034 and HB1041, both passed in 1974 to provide local regulation of statewide activities, including water projects.

Pueblo County has used the 1041 process most notably in obtaining mitigation for the Southern Delivery System, an $840 million project that is designed to bring water from Pueblo Dam to Colorado Springs.

SDS is scheduled to go online in 2016, and under the 2009 permit for the project, Colorado Springs has been required to spend an additional $75 million to fortify sewer lines, $50 million for Fountain Creek flood control, $15 million for roads, $4 million for wetlands restoration and $2.2 million for Fountain Creek channel dredging, among other conditions.

“To avoid confusion as to the local government’s authority to deny a permit for a specific project, we recommend that the following sentence be added: ‘A permit may be denied for a specific water project that does not meet the standards or criteria of the local regulations,’ ” the commissioners wrote.

The county also wants the state to remain neutral in water projects.

“Pueblo County does not believe that it is appropriate for the state of Colorado to endorse or become a sponsor of a water project in most cases,” they said.

The board also wants to include stormwater control in the state definition for watershed protection. Most of the efforts in the last three years in watershed health have focused on mitigating the damage from large wildfires, but Pueblo County said equal attention has to be given to the effects on water quality from increased stormwater caused by development, such as what has occurred on Fountain Creek.

Stormwater has been a key issue in regulation of SDS as well. A recent study for the county by Wright Water Engineers found that 370,000 tons of sediment are deposited each year between Colorado and Pueblo, decreasing the effectiveness of Fountain Creek levees.

Finally, the county wants water reuse to get more emphasis in the state water plan.

“The benefits to Pueblo County of promoting reuse are twofold,” commissioners said. “First, municipal reuse would reduce the need for dry-up of agricultural lands and transfers of agricultural water rights to municipal use. Second, reuse in El Paso County would reduce and control damaging flows in Fountain Creek through Pueblo County.”

Public review for new floodplain maps for Aspen and Pitkin County

Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy
Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy

From Pitkin County via the Aspen Daily News:

Pitkin County and the city of Aspen will roll out preliminary floodplain maps to the public at an open house next week.

The new maps, also known as flood insurance rate maps, had not been updated since 1987. The latest effort was the result of an extensive, multiyear study of the Roaring Fork watershed, and surrounding creeks and drainages, according to a Pitkin County press release.

“Floodplains change over time, and with that the risk of flooding can change for people who own property in floodplains,” said Lance Clarke, the county’s assistant director of community development.

The unveiling of the maps is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 29, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Plaza 1 meeting room, 530 East Main St. in Aspen.

At the public event, participants will be able to see their properties online using GIS technology with a floodplain map overlay. Property owners will have the opportunity to review the maps with advice and counseling by FEMA, Colorado Water Conservancy officials and flood insurance experts.

The new maps are preliminary, and FEMA has not yet adopted them. Officials want local residents and business owners to review the drafts to identify any concerns or questions.

Experts will be available to explain what should be done if properties are located in a floodplain and what property owners can do to protect their home or business from the consequences of a flood.

“This is a rare opportunity for local property owners to meet one-on-one with FEMA officials and insurance experts to find out how these new maps may affect their property,” Clarke said.

In 2009, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommended the new study to the city and county. FEMA contributed 75 percent of the $517,220 price tag. The remainder of the cost was funded by grants from Pitkin County Healthy Rivers, the city of Aspen, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and an in-kind contribution from the Pitkin County GIS Department.

The public can access the preliminary maps on FEMA’s website: https://msc.fema.gov/portal.