The Gunnison sage-grouse: Long history of listing scrutiny

A male Gunnison Sage Grouse puts on a display early in the morning at Mill Creek Ranch in Gunnison. NOPPADOL PAOTHONG/Special to the Sentinel

First identified in 1977 as a species unto itself, the Gunnison sage-grouse is the focus of conservation efforts that united 11 Western Slope counties.

The possible listing of the bird as endangered or threatened, however, could damage the very working relationships that are credited with making the largest population of Gunnison sage-grouse a stable or growing group, according to participants.

There are nearly 5,000 Gunnison sage-grouse in the world, most of them, about 4,000, in the Gunnison Basin. The remaining birds are scattered to the west, including a small population in Pinyon Mesa in Mesa County and the farthest-flung one, near Monticello, Utah.

The Gunnison Basin population is “by most accounts, stable or growing,” said Jim Cochran, wildlife conservation coordinator for Gunnison County.

Clait E. Braun, a biologist who discovered the differences that set the Gunnnison sage-grouse apart, however, maintains that protection under the Endangered Species Act is “desperately needed.”

The Gunnison sage-grouse’s dull, dun coloration camouflages it among the grays and browns of its sage-and-dust habitat, belying the legal and political fight that has surrounded the otherwise unprepossessing fowl.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to list the bird as an endangered species or determine that listing is unwarranted. At the same time, the service is considering designating as many as 1.7 million acres critical habitat for the bird.

It’s not the first time the Gunnison sage-grouse has been under study by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The service ruled in 2006 that listing was not warranted. A settlement with environmental groups in 2010 required the agency to reconsider.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is to decide by March 31, 2014, whether to list the Gunnison sage-grouse as endangered and designate 1.7 million acres of the Western Slope and eastern Utah as critical habitat for the species.

Public comment on the designation is being accepted by the service until Dec. 2, coincidentally the same day that ends the comment period on the Bureau of Land Management’s proposals for the management of about 4 million acres in northwest Colorado to preserve the larger and more numerous greater sage-grouse.

Colorado’s senators, Democrats Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, and Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican whose 3rd Congressional District contains almost all the habitat of the Gunnison sage-grouse, oppose listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act, while a flock of environmental organizations, including WildEarth Guardians, Sheep Mountain Alliance and others, favor its listing.

“We have been at this for nearly 20 years, working in partnership,” said Brian St. George, Gunnison field office manager for the Bureau of Land Management.

It was back in 1995, a decade and a half before federal officials said the Gunnison sage-grouse was upgraded for listing as endangered, that Gunnison County, ranchers, environmental groups and state and federal officials formed a working group to deal with concerns about the bird.

Efforts to save the Gunnison sage-grouse using conservation easements and other ways of encouraging landowners to preserve habitat for the fowl have cost upward of $30 million, state Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said Wednesday in a meeting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which conducted public hearings in Colorado and Utah about the grouse.

The effort also has spawned 106 separate activities within the affected counties, Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said, noting that preservation efforts began before the 2006 decision and continued even though listing was not warranted then.

A finding that the grouse is threatened or endangered could dash the partnerships that have been built over the years as the Fish and Wildlife Service moves in with federal authority, Coram said.

“Listing takes away the ability to work together,” said Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20, the Western Slope advocacy organization.

The service, however, would be reliant on those very partnerships, as well as local governments and other agencies, said Susan Linner, Colorado field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The federal agency, for instance, has no say over zoning rules, Linner said.

The species has declined since the 1990s, Braun said in a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but there also is evidence, Petersen said, that it has increased since the 1950s. More immediately, the Gunnison sage-grouse population in the Gunnison Basin is up 30 percent since 2001. “These are not the traits of a species headed toward extinction,” Petersen said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, Petersen said, “needs to identify what is an adequate number” that would constitute recovery of the bird.

Like its larger cousin, the Gunnison sage-grouse is hindered by habitat fragmentation, such as when roads cross the land or buildings are constructed on the land they occupy.

Tall trees or structures also threaten the birds as they replace the sage habitat the birds need, while also providing vantage points for predators such as raptors looking to feast on grouse.

Among the things that separate Gunnison sage-grouse from greaters are the sounds, or vocalizations, made at the strutting grounds, or leks, where the males vie for females.

For an experienced biologist, the tail can tell the tale, Cochran said, noting there are subtle differences in the coloration of their display.

“But,” Cochran said, “you have to be a very experienced biologist to see it.”


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