The Gunnison Sage Grouse, with an estimated 100 birds in San Juan County, has been proposed for endangered species status by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The designation proposal was published in two documents in the Federal Register on January 11. The first document proposes the endangered species status and the second document outlines critical habitat for the bird.
The proposal would designate 1.7 million acres of critical habitat, including more than 70,000 acres in San Juan County.
Of the 70,595 acres proposed for critical habitat in San Juan County, an estimated 95 percent is on privately-owned land, primarily east and north of Monticello.
A 60-day comment period is now open on the proposals. San Juan County officials state that a final designation is likely to take place in 2013.
At the current time, a public hearing on the designation is scheduled for January 31 in Dove Creek, CO. San Juan County officials are expected to request an additional public hearing in Monticello.
The impact on San Juan County residents may be significant. More than 92 percent of the land in San Juan County is owned by one government entity or another, leaving just eight percent owned by private landowners.
The federal designation of critical habitat for the endangered sage grouse would impact nearly 20 percent of the privately-owned land in San Juan County.
Wind farms are in the planning stage on a portion of the critical habitat. Tony Hall, of Hall-Ellis, is proposing a 52-tower wind farm at TARB, northeast of Monticello.
Hall said he is working with the federal agencies and hopes to move ahead with his wind farm. “We have adopted to take on board whatever requests that they have in mind,” said Hall of the federal agencies.
Hall said the problem is not the wind turbines, which are generally higher than the grouse will fly. Instead, Hall said the problem can be the roads and ground disruptions that impact the on-the-ground habitat for the birds.
Hall said that he hopes to create a wildlife preserve on the wind farm, with efforts to protect the critical habitat. Hall told San Juan County Commissioners on January 14 that he faced a similar issue on a wind farm that he developed in his native Scotland.
“We faced a much bigger issue with a species that is more endangered than the sage grouse,” said Hall. “Our efforts increased the population from 3.5 to 30 breeding pair on the Scottish Highlands.”
Hall said that the wind farm may provide better habitat than the current status. “Wind farms gives you an economic environment that will allow us to create an environment that will allow the Gunnison Sage Grouse to thrive.”
Hall said that adult sage grouse do fine because they eat plant matter but chicks do not have a good environment in San Juan County. “Chicks need eight weeks of bugs and slugs and wetlands before they can move to plant matter,” said Hall.
Commissioners said that they need to act aggressively on the proposal. “We need to push back hard, and we don’t have a whole lot of time,” said Commissioner Bruce Adams.
Adams added, “We need to aggressively pursue information on what the economic downside may be on a county where only eight percent of the land is privately owned.
“Hopefully we can speak loudly. Private property rights have a value attached to them. This proposal will affect surface rights, mineral rights, and the right to develop wind power. That is our tax base.
“If you lose all your private property rights, it can have a big impact on the county.”
The Commissioner added that while the endangered species designation may “be a done deal,” the critical habitat designation may be adjusted.
The exclusions section of the law says that economic impact may be considered. County officials will document what will be the economic impact of a designation.
In another matter at the January 14 commission meeting, Commissioners approved a building permit for 52 wind turbines to be constructed northeast of Monticello near TARB.
The proposed fee of $700 per tower will be reviewed again by the Commission. In September, 2012, the Commission set the $700 fee, plus the cost of inspections.
County employees had suggested a $1,200 per tower fee, which compares to $700 per tower charged by Millard and Beaver counties and $2,200 per tower charged by the City of Spanish Fork.
County Building Inspector Bruce Bunker said that the fees for commercial and residential permits are generally set at about one or 1.5 percent of the total cost, plus inspection fee and mileage.
Bunker said, “With a $200 million project, these fees are pretty nominal.”
The building permit fee to install the temporary wind towers was $100 each. Bunker pointed out that the massive permanent towers that will be built in this phase are significantly larger and more complicated than the temporary test towers.
Commissioner Phil Lyman suggested a second look at the fee schedule. “We would like to appear to be a pro-business friendly place,” he said while motioning to approve the permit and consult with other counties about fees later.
Construction on the wind farm is expected to begin this year and take two years to complete.
Commissioners discussed term limits for Special Service District boards. In general, there are no limits on the terms of service, with some county residents serving multiple terms that extend for decades.
Bailey told the Commission that it is often difficult to find qualified people to serve on the boards and recommended the Commission reappoint experienced board members who are willing to serve another term.
The San Juan Health Service District has three positions open and Bailey suggested Commissioners reappoint all three members. They are Doug Allen, Allan Barry and Gail Johnson. All three are willing to serve another term.
Commissioner Bruce Adams said that the health district enabling resolution outlines term limits for board members.
Assistant County Attorney Walter Bird recommends the county amend the 2006 resolution to take out mention of the number of terms.
Commissioner Lyman said, “With the Health Service District functioning well, it doesn’t make sense to cause problems.”
The reappointment will be included on next week’s agenda.
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