San Miguel County officials talked Wednesday about protecting Gunnison sage-grouse habitat in the West End. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Outdoors)

The Board of San Miguel County Commissioners discussed Wednesday the possibility of investing in San Miguel Power Association’s (SMPA) Totally Green program, which uses energy from 100 percent renewable energy sources. They also received an update on the Gunnison sage-grouse recovery plan, which aims to protect the bird’s habitat in the West End of San Miguel County.

Also slated for discussion was the consideration of an application by attorney Brad Switzer on behalf of Spitfire Realty LLC to vacate and realign part of a county road in order to accommodate a private airplane runway. The application was withdrawn, thus cancelling the discussion of the matter.

During the discussion with representatives from SMPA, the commissioners asked for details of the power cooperative’s latest program to promote local renewable energy. The plan, called Totally Green, allows consumers to pay a voluntary 1 cent per kilowatt hour, which would be invested in regional renewable energy projects. The consumer then will receive electricity coming from 100 percent renewable sources, such as wind, solar and hydro power.

Regarding the county signing up for Totally Green, Lynn Padgett, county natural resource director, remarked, “We’re trying to achieve carbon neutrality so the county can be totally green. We’re looking for ways to fund more local renewables and this program is one way to do that.”

Wiley Freeman, SMPA manager of member services and marketing, agreed. “For me, it’s a win for SMPA and it’s a win for the county. It attaches your name to the project and it bolsters green energy in the region,” he said.

While the cost of the program would add approximately $6,000 to the county’s annual energy bill, the funds from Totally Green will be reinvested in clean energy projects within the county. There is no long-term commitment to signing up for the program.

“I’m swayed towards signing up, given that there’s no term commitment and we could cancel at any time,” Commissioner Lance Waring said.

Commissioner Kris Holstrom agreed, citing the importance of investing in the efforts of the local power company.

Commissioner Hilary Cooper had questions about some of the features of the green energy program, such as how the funds from the program are distributed and how credits are claimed by consumers producing energy via rooftop solar. Ultimately, Waring made a motion for the county to sign up for Totally Green at 100 percent. Waring and Holstrom supported the motion, while Cooper was the lone dissenting vote.

Following the energy discussion, commissioners revisited the subject of protecting the habitat of the Gunnison sage-grouse in the West End of the county. Heather Widlund, county geographic information systems coordinator, updated the board using maps showing habitat management priority areas.

Widlund explained the importance of protecting not only the habitat physically inhabited by sage-grouse populations in the county, but also the buffer zones of up to a mile around the habitat. Sage-grouses are sensitive to noise disturbances, so the unoccupied habitat, as well as the surrounding non-habitat zones, are key to ensuring the health of the sage-grouse population.

Protecting the Gunnison sage-grouse, a ground-dwelling bird with a puffed-up chest and a striking striped tail plumage, has been a major effort in conservation across the state for over two decades. Populations of the chicken-sized bird have declined in the past decade. As of 2017, less than 250 Gunnison sage-grouse remained in the San Miguel Basin.

However, Fish and Wildlife and regional conservation groups continue to work on safeguarding habitat management areas to protect the species.

“We looked for ways to accommodate the recent data, while also taking Fish and Wildlife recommendations into the framework,” Padgett said of the recovery plan.

The sage-grouse recovery plan draft will go to the board for review by Dec. 12.