April 2014

Scaled-back measure is an improvement

The Montezuma County commissioners have scaled back the scope of an ordinance intended to fight back against possible introductions of endangered species, and we’re relieved. The first draft of the ordinance was overly broad and would have made it illegal to bring any non-native species into the county.

Since then, the ordinance has been rewritten so that it applies only to “nonnative animal species. . . that are listed or proposed for listing as threatened or endangered,” and it applies only to private lands. This eliminates a lot of the problems with the first draft, such as effects on ranchers importing new strains of cattle, people planting non-native flowers, and public-land managers releasing creatures such as tamarisk beetles or thistle weevils to try to control invasive weeds.

Still, we have some remaining concerns.

One is that the ordinance – though intended to stave off a possible reintroduction of the Gunnison sage grouse, whose status is going to be decided in May by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – probably wouldn’t apply to the sage grouse at all. The county commissioners’ stance is that the sage grouse is not native to the county, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. So, if an agency tries to establish critical habitat for sage grouse on private lands in the county, and the county objects, who decides whether the bird is indeed native?

According to one commissioner, that determination will be made by the commissioners themselves at a public hearing. But we aren’t sure that it’s appropriate for county commissioners – whoever they may be at a particular point in time – to be deciding questions better left to biologists. The commissioners will naturally be under political pressure to do what is desired by their constituents, and this could lead to decisions that are scientifically incorrect but politically expedient.

And putting aside the sage grouse, we are left with the question of how likely it is that Fish and Wildlife or any other agency would want to introduce nonnative endangered species into the area. If they were never in the county in the first place, that’s likely because the habitat won’t support them. So why would the agency want to waste time introducing animals that wouldn’t thrive here? There wouldn’t be much point in bringing in polar bears or Hawaiian geese only to see them die.

There is a possibility, we suppose, that as the area warms under climate change, it might become suitable habitat for desert tortoises or other rare, heat-loving animals not native to the area, but we’re still not sure how often this ordinance would ever be invoked.

And we have a quibble with a portion of the ordinance that states, “No person, federal or State agency, corporation, or entity shall knowingly or recklessly allow these animal species to migrate onto private land in Montezuma County. . .” Is the county really prepared to prosecute a landowner or hiker who happens to see a hypothetical non-native endangered species strolling onto private lands, but doesn’t try to stop it?

The push for the measure stems from fears about the impacts that may ensue if the Gunnison sage grouse is indeed declared endangered by Fish and Wildlife, and if critical habitat is established within Montezuma County.

These worries are understandable. The Endangered Species Act (which, incidentally, was signed into law by Richard Nixon after passing Congress on a voice vote in the Senate and with just 4 dissenting votes in the House) gave sweeping powers to the federal government in protecting imperiled species, though subsequent amendments to the act have modified those powers and made it more flexible.

Keep in mind that, if an endangered species exists on private lands, or if private lands are declared part of a species’ critical habitat, this does not mean the land is taken away or that it can’t be used for normal purposes. However, large-scale developments, mining projects, and big logging sales probably would have to have a federal permit and would be subject to some restrictions – and, because of the local area’s dependence on energy extraction, this naturally raises hackles.

The bottom line is, the ordinance – which is slated for a public hearing on Monday, April 28, at 10:30 a.m. – is a symbolic gesture that probably won’t make a great deal of difference to federal agencies’ decision making about endangered species. As it’s written, it probably won’t do any great harm, either.

Preliminary indications are that Fish and Wildlife is not going to designate sage-grouse critical habitat in Montezuma County. But other endangered species could have an impact here in the future. If similar concerns arise about the southwestern willow flycatcher or any other species, the public and the commissioners would be wise to do as they have done so far regarding the sage grouse: Send in plenty of specific, factbased comments to Fish and Wildlife; keep the lines of communication open with the federal agencies; try not to fan the flames of hysteria; and hope for the best.