Sage grouse habitat at issue |

Sage grouse habitat at issue

Road department seeks gravel permit near Toponas

— The Routt County Board of Commissioners will convene in Yampa tonight to discuss an application from the county’s Road and Bridge Department to develop a new gravel pit in an area near Toponas that is deemed sensitive sage grouse habitat by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

There will be no vote on the fate of the proposed Topping Gravel Pit at the pre-application hearing.

“I have never seen a letter from the Division (of Wildlife) this detailed or this lengthy,” Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said Monday. “This is a very serious matter.”

The proposed gravel pit would occupy a little more than 17 acres on a 29.5-acre parcel of privately owned land along the north side of Routt County Road 3B. The Road and Bridge Department would use the gravel from the pit to maintain unpaved roads in South Routt. Road and Bridge Director Paul Draper told the Planning Commission on Feb. 3 that his department maintains 325 miles of gravel roads, and the distances trucks must haul gravel and the related costs have escalated.

The parcel in question is on the northwest portion of Five Pine Mesa in close proximity to the privately operated King Mountain Gravel Pit, which previously has been turned down for an expansion because of concerns about the grouse and the impacts on county roads 3B and 3.

“The Colorado Division of Wildlife is concerned that the proposed Topping Gravel Pit could severely affect greater sage grouse habitat in southern Routt County,” Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins wrote in a letter to county planner Rebecca Bessey.

A year ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the condition of the grouse populations in the intermountain west warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, but it did not list them as an endangered species because other birds and animals face more dire circumstances.

District Wildlife Manager Libbie Miller told the Planning Commission last month that the proposed gravel pit lies within a four-mile core area that contains three breeding grounds, or leks, for the birds. The distance from the leks to the mine ranges from 0.75 to 1.5 miles.

In response to a question from Planning Commission Chairman Jay Gallagher, Miller said the overall population of sage grouse is not dependent on the North Eagle-South Routt population, which is relatively small. However, she said elimination of those birds likely would have genetic implications for adjacent populations.

Wayne Shomeaker, a resident of Toponas who represented the Bar A Ranch, told the planning commissioners he had been involved in a sage grouse working group for a period of years and the implications for landowners in the area should the birds be listed as an endangered species are a concern to him. He added that he considered it “obscene” that Routt County would consider a gravel pit at that location after King Mountain’s expansion had been turned down.

Draper told the Planning Commission that the county has lease agreements on the Redmond Pit near Stagecoach Reservoir and the Kagie Pit on Cross Mountain Ranch. He said that locating pits near the places where the gravel is most used facilitates good roads, reduces truck traffic and holds down the cost of road maintenance.

He said the county owns a gravel crusher, which it rotates through its pits in summer to stockpile materials. Operations are intense when the crusher is on site, but those periods are relatively brief, he said.

He estimated that during the first year of operation, the Topping Gravel Pit might produce 5,000 to 15,000 cubic yards of material. However, as the pit matures, operations would be reduced to three to four weeks per year with the crusher operating there about once every three years.

The operators of the King Mountain pit have offered gravel at no charge to the county, but County Manager Tom Sullivan said that arrangement between government and a private enterprise likely to seek permits in the future was not appropriate. Draper has said his department needs to have a source of gravel that is within its control.

The county approved a special-use permit for an exploratory oil well in close proximity to grouse leks on Wolf Mountain west of Steamboat Springs with the condition that it not operate during mating and chick-rearing season.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or e-mail

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