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FWS seeks plan comments, ideas

Posted: Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s proposed San Luis Valley Conservation Area identifies acreage where conservation easements on private land could occur. The plan provides for additional habitat for birds and mammals, such as those shown at the Monte Vista refuge.

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Preserving additional habitat for targeted species is one the goals of a proposed San Luis Valley Conservation Area.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) shared highlights of the proposed plan and took questions and comments Monday night in Alamosa during the first of three local public meetings this week. The second meeting was held last night in San Luis and the third is scheduled tonight, May 16, at 6:30 p.m. in the Moffat School.

The draft, which was released last week, is available at www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/planning/lpp/co/slv/slv.html

Comments may be made through that site as well. The comment period on the draft plan ends June 8. The final plan is anticipated this fall.

Dr. Michael Dixon, wildlife biologist with the FWS Division of Refuge Planning, explained to those who attended the Monday meeting that the proposed San Luis Valley Conservation Area would offer the FWS the opportunity of protecting vital habitat, primarily through conservation easements.

The proposed plan identifies up to 530,000 acres in the San Luis Valley, much of it along the rivers, where the FWS could enter into perpetual conservation easements with willing landowners to protect habitat for various wildlife including birds, fish and mammals.

Dixon explained that this area is home to a number of federal trust, focal (being tracked for population trends), endangered and state-managed species.

A small portion of the plan, 30,000 acres of the 530,000 total acres, would provide for fee title acquisition with willing sellers, but Dixon said the vast majority of the conserved area would be through conservation easements.

All of the easements or purchases would involve private landowners who were willing sellers.

“We want to work in working landscapes and protect already existing wildlife values,” Dixon said.

He said the plan will be viewed as a 100-year document but is flexible enough to reflect changing priorities in the future.

The amount of land ultimately protected through the conservation area would depend on funding. The two primary sources of revenue for the conservation area would be the Land and Water Conservation Fund (excise on offshore oil and gas drilling) and the Migratory Bird Conservation Funds (duck stamp revenues.)

Dixon said the conservation area would be considered a unit in the FWS refuge system but would not comprise a specific consolidated area like the Alamosa, Monte Vista and Baca refuges.

The San Luis Valley already has active conservation programs such as the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, but Dixon said the Fish & Wildlife Service believed there were additional areas in the Valley that could be conserved for crucial habitat.

Dixon explained that the acreage for the conservation plan was identified by mapping habitat for eight focal species whose progress could be measured over the years. Those eight species are: Canada lynx, Rio Grande cutthroat trout, Wilson’s phalarope, American Bittern, Gunnison sage-grouse, willow flycatcher, sage thrasher and Lewis’ woodpecker.

The proposed conservation plan covers rivers and streams like the Rio Grande, Conejos, Alamosa and Saguache Creek as well as wetlands, cottonwood stands and sagebrush areas.

In developing a conservation easement with a willing landowner, the FWS would not tell the property owner how to manage the land but would place some restrictions on changes to land use such as development or converting a hay meadow habitat to row crops.

“There’s already wildlife there, but we want to make sure down the road wildlife values would still be there,” Dixon said.

One of the unique features of the San Luis Valley Conservation Area would be the focus on water rights/use, Dixon said.

“We have done a lot of easements,” he said, “but we have not addressed water use/rights in our easements and it’s water that drives a lot of the value in the San Luis Valley.”

Therefore, one of the restrictions with easements in the Valley conservation area would be that the water could not be diverted away from the land.

Dixon said the FWS would use a phased implementation that would probably focus first on areas not covered in the Habitat Conservation Plan currently being developed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. That plan has been underway for several years and is nearing completion.

Dixon said the FWS does not want to compete or conflict with that habitat conservation plan.

Fish & Wildlife Service staff fielded numerous questions Monday night at the Alamosa meeting and heard comments, suggestions and concerns from audience members.

For example, audience members urged the FWS to make sure it worked with other governmental agencies and made their comments about the plan public. FWS staff said those comments would be part of the plan.

The group discussed restrictions and enforcement on conservation easements. FWS staff said once conservation easements are in place, they are monitored at least annually if not more frequently, and if there are violations, the FWS works with the landowner to correct them. If that does not work, the easement violations could end up in court, they explained.

One of the ways to prevent that from occurring, they explained, was to make sure anyone buying a property with a conservation easement attached was well aware of the easement at the time of purchase.

Some of the comments shared at the conclusion of Monday’s public meeting were:

• Maintain a balance of wildlife and human needs.

• Nothing is really in perpetuity because governments could change and existing easements might not be recognized.

• The willing seller provision in this plan is very important.

• Continue to coordinate this plan with the Habitat Conservation Plan underway by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

• Include state and federal agency comments in this plan.

• The cooperation with groups with a history of conservation already in the Valley is appreciated.

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