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Mapping software helps county steer development away from sage grouse

Could make HPT part of planning process

Powerful mapping software is giving Gunnison County officials a clearer picture of where Gunnison sage grouse are likely to breed and rear their young, and the Board of County Commissioners is moving forward with a proposal to make that information an important part of the permitting and development approval process.



At a work session on Tuesday, August 13, county wildlife coordinator Jim Cochran and GIS (geographic information system) manager Mike Pelletier laid out a map for the commissioners, with 10,000 individual points where Colorado Parks and Wildlife researchers had observed one of around 500 radio-collared grouse.
A second map showed areas of the county that a habitat prioritization tool (HPT) had identified as high priority, or Tier 1, which contained 80 percent of those points where sage grouse had been observed. Nearly all of the rest were captured in an area of the map identified as Tier 2 habitat.
Identifying those leks and designating parts of the county for Gunnison sage grouse protection is one of the commissioners’ strategic goals and an important part of maintaining local control of the conservation effort.
The U.S. Fish and wildlife Service is currently in the midst of a rule-making process aimed at protecting the bird, whose population appears to be stable locally, through the Endangered Species Act.
Cochran told commissioners he was recently able to use the HPT, which he has been using since January 2012, to identify areas on a parcel of land where the owner could build and areas where he couldn’t.
“In this case it identified areas, from a sage grouse perspective, where we would want development on this parcel. The owner came in thinking we were just going to say no to everything and we used it to show that there are places you could build a house and a driveway and that’s really a positive thing,” Cochran said. “In almost 500 reviews, we haven’t found that that we need to say no to all development.”
With a recommendation from the Gunnison Sage Grouse Strategic Committee, the commissioners asked that a set of amendments to the Land Use Resolution codifying the use of the HPT in the planning process be forwarded to the Planning Commission for review.
Previously, planners tried to steer development away from areas within six-tenths of a mile of a known sage grouse breeding area, or lek. Now that area, which comprises about 21,000 acres in the county, is considered to be Tier 1 habitat and another 70,000 acres farther out from the leks as Tier 2 habitat. Planners will treat development in those areas accordingly.
“Gunnison County is the only county in the western United States that has sage grouse-specific land use regulations,” Cochran said. “What we’re recommending will make those regulations better and more transparent to the public. Not that what we’re doing is not good. It’s working. But the habitat prioritization tool allows us to make it better.”

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