Last month, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order that directs state agencies to prioritize protections for big game migratory corridors and winter ranges. I thank him for this much-needed action. It is sure to prove beneficial to wildlife, to motorists, and to our outdoor recreation economy. It also has important implications for how Colorado moves forward with oil and gas leasing.
The executive order can be expected to accelerate the pace of collaborative projects in Colorado − projects designed to protect important migratory corridors relied upon by elk, deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and other species to travel and stop over between their summer and winter ranges. Safeguarding corridors also will reduce wildlife traffic accidents at highway crossings along migration routes, as shown by the very successful overpasses and underpasses on Highway 9. Our state population is projected to double by the year 2050. This anticipated rate of growth underscores the urgency and necessity of the executive order.
The Polis executive order also focuses on steps to conserve big game winter ranges. Relevant to this is the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) September oil and gas lease sale of 65 parcels that intersect critical winter ranges for deer, elk and pronghorn. Several organizations, including Colorado Wildlife Federation, have urged the BLM to remove these parcels from the lease sale in order for the agency and the state to develop a statewide strategy rather than continuing a lease-sale-by-lease-sale approach. This recommended action would be consistent with both the Polis executive order and the federal Department of Interior’s 2018 Secretarial Order 3362. The Secretarial order, focusing on big game habitats, directs agencies to “review and use the best available science to inform development of specific guidelines … to avoid or minimize potential negative impacts on wildlife.” We are pleased to see that the BLM has indicated that, at the least, it will defer, until after the September sale, action upon 10 strategic parcels. These encompass some 14,000 acres of public lands in Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco, and Garfield counties.
This brings us to a related pressing matter: protection of the greater sage grouse priority habitats in northwest Colorado. Some — but not all — of the big game winter ranges happen to overlap with greater sage grouse priority habitat. Because sage grouse habitat is critical for 350 other plant and wildlife species as well as the sage grouse, it’s vital that these areas be protected. That’s why the historic 2015 sage grouse plans were so important. Colorado Parks and Wildlife expended substantial time and financial resources and helped foster public-private partnerships, to safeguard and minimize disturbances to sage grouse priority habitat.
Although the 2019 amendments to those plans continue to specify that oil and gas leasing be directed to parcels outside of grouse priority habitat management area, five parcels in the September sale overlap with active sage grouse breeding areas. An additional 106 parcels extend into greater sage grouse priority habitat. It is unclear how the leasing prioritization process will be implemented, but I hope that, for future lease sales, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will continue to press the BLM to direct that leasing fall outside the priority grouse habitat.
To avoid these issues in the future, we hope Gov. Polis will issue a sage-grouse specific executive order or other executive action, just as Gov. Mark Gordon has done in Wyoming. It should direct agencies to manage and enhance, within the limits of their jurisdiction, what already has been designated priority greater sage grouse habitat, so as to protect vital grouse populations in northwestern Colorado. With such additional protection, there will be an improved prospect that our wildlife heritage shall endure for generations to come.
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