10 counties band together to protect Gunnison grouse

Most of the counties in western Colorado are unifying in the face of the proposed addition of the Gunnison sage-grouse to the federal endangered species list.

Mesa County signed on this week to a memorandum of understanding that now includes nine other Colorado counties and San Juan County, Utah.

In it, they band together to maintain local control over ongoing conservation efforts of the unique bird.

“It’s been known for many years that this species is threatened, and there’s been a great response in terms of collaboration among landowners and (organizations in the county) to do what is possible to do—to increase the likelihood that this species can sustain itself and at some point even increase,” Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said.

“We want to make sure that when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers changing the status of the bird, they have a full understanding of what the local efforts have been,” he said. “Because I don’t see any way that federal efforts directed out of Washington, D.C., can do better than what we’ve done here locally in protecting this rare habitat.”

Under the memorandum’s terms, the counties will share data, strategies, plans and tools, engage in dialogue and foster a “rangewide perspective” on the bird and its habitat.

A separate proposal under consideration by Fish and Wildlife would designate 1.7 million acres of critical habitat, including some in Mesa County on Pinon Mesa. Most of the bird’s core habitat can be found in Gunnison County.

“Landowners are particularly aware that listing could bring new regulations and dictates to this area,” Acquafresca said.

Local officials point to positive numbers in the Gunnison area, where there are an estimated 3,000 birds and the population is described by many officials as “viable.” Bird counts are indeed low in the satellite populations, such as in Mesa County.

“We’ve gone to extraordinary lengths across the western part of the state,” said JT Romatzke, an area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Parks and Wildlife has spent about $30 million so far on efforts to conserve the Gunnison sage-grouse, according to Northwest Region Co-Manager Ron Velarde.

Acquafresca asked Velarde at a recent meeting if these local collaborations are significantly responsible for the viable population now in Gunnison.

“We believe so, and obviously there’s a disagreement (with Fish and Wildlife),” Velarde said.

“We are going to recommend that (the listing) is unwarranted ... and we have the biology to back it up,” he said, in reference to the state agency’s years and years of data on the bird.

A comment period about the proposed listing and designation of critical habitat expires Tuesday. Two public hearings have been tentatively planned in Gunnison and in either Dove Creek or Monticello, Utah.

The rangewide population of the bird is estimated at 4,621, with more than 87 percent of the total number of birds living in the Gunnison Basin.


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