No protection for Gunnison grouse

The rare, chicken-sized Gunnison sage grouse is found only in seven isolated pockets in western Colorado and one in eastern Utah. It is now a “candidate species” under the Endangered Species Act, but it has no formal protection.

Monday’s decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not list the Gunnison sage grouse as a federally endangered species has raised the ire of conservation groups.

However, state officials say leaving the bird under the state’s control gives Colorado more opportunity to control the birds’ destiny without federal restrictions.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in its announcement that the rare chicken-sized bird, now found only in seven isolated pockets in western Colorado and one in eastern Utah, warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, but its listing is precluded by higher priority actions and lack of resources.

The grouse, which was identified as a separate species in 2000, will now become a “candidate species” under the act, a move which offers no formal protection to the bird.

A decision in April 2006 to leave the bird off the ESA was contested after it was discovered the decision might have been affected by interference from the Bush administration.

A subsequent lawsuit protesting that not-warranted decision was settled last year with the proviso the service have a new listing decision by June 30 of this year.

Among those parties filing the lawsuit were San Miguel County and a coalition of national and regional conservation organizations.

“This is a terrible blow to efforts to protect the Gunnison sage grouse,” said San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May. “Listing is imperative for protecting this species.”

But leaving the bird’s management in the hands of the state means retaining more local options and control, said Theo Stein of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Listing under the ESA “can eliminate the opportunity to work with the folks who react badly to an ESA listing,” Stein said.

Cooperation from private landowners and state and federal governments is imperative in securing the bird’s future, he said.

“The Division of Wildlife has tried to work with counties, federal agencies and private landowners to protect habitat with such things as conservation agreements,” Stein said.


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