Fed’s sage grouse reversal ruffles some feathers

A male Gunnison sage grouse puts on a display during a snowstorm at Woods Gulch BLM area in Gunnison. Photo by Noppadol Paothong.

Federal officials have reversed a 2006 decision and are seeking to list the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species—a step that left western Colorado ranchers wondering how severely they might be affected by new restrictions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday said they would seek endangered status for the species, which now numbers about 5,000 breeding individuals that occupy some 1.7 million acres in Colorado’s Gunnison River basin and in Utah.

Environmental organizations, which had sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, hailed the development.

“Gunnison sage grouse are finally getting the protection they deserve,” Noah Greenwald, endangered-species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “This unique and beautiful bird needs a safe haven from oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, urban sprawl and other threats.”

Many West Slope ranchers already are working with federal and state officials to conserve the birds.

“We hope all we have done in the way of habitat projects and conservation practices to this point that it hopefully won’t mean too much of a change,” Glade Park rancher Warren Gore said. “There is uncertainty there.”

One of the most significant results of a finding that the Gunnison sage grouse is endangered is the access to federal funds for a variety of approaches to conservation, Megan Mueller, a biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild, said.

In many cases, “I don’t think there needs to be more severe land-use restrictions,” Mueller said. Funding to place more farms and ranches under conservation easements is perhaps the most important part of an endangerment finding, Mueller said.

Such a finding, however, also would encourage “smart development” in the Gunnison River Basin, intended to allow both development and species recovery in the face of a growing human population, Mueller said.

Elk, deer and other species also could benefit from conservation efforts, such as locating power lines together, closing and revegetating old roads and other activities, Mueller said.

Small concentrations of birds in the Dove Creek-Monticello, Utah, area might need greater protections than those in the upper Gunnison basin, such as those on Pinon Mesa north of Gateway, Mueller said.

Colorado officials have spent about $30 million to acquire conservation easements or properties with Grouse habitat in Gunnison, San Miguel, Dolores and Mesa counties and more than 68,000 acres of land are being managed to enhance habitat with the help of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, state officials said.

Nonetheless, the state was dismayed with the decision to move closer to listing the species and endangered, Rick Cables, director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said.

“For two decades our agency has worked closely with private landowners, county governments and others to protect and improve habitat, conduct research and work collaboratively for Gunnison sage grouse,” Cables said. “We’ll continue to stand together and work closely with our partners in western Colorado that have been dedicated to keeping Gunnison sage grouse from being listed.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service decision made it seem as though ranchers had done nothing to help with the species when in fact they’ve been cooperative and helpful in trying to recover the bird, Terry Fankhauser, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, said.

“There will be a period of time where we feel we’ve been punched in the gut, but we’ll get over that,” Fankhauser said, noting that the organization would continue cooperating with conservation efforts.

The drilling industry in northwest Colorado has “been well ahead of the curve” in efforts to conserve species, David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said. The move toward listing the bird as endangered was “unfortunate,” Ludlam said, “but it doesn’t change our commitment to preserve the species.”

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., whose district encompasses the affected lands in the state, called on the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct “a thorough economic impact analysis as required under the Endangered Species Act and not just check the box with respect to this obligation.”

That would help ascertain how the action would affect businesses, energy development and farming and ranching, Tipton said.

Club 20, the West Slope advocacy organization, urged affected individuals to comment on the proposed listing.

“We can only hope that Fish and Wildlife would drop the designation to threatened” instead of the most restrictive endangered designation, Executive Director Bonnie Petersen said.

The Fish and Wildife Service will announce a schedule of public meetings to discuss the proposed listing and designation of the 1.7 million acres as critical habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse.


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