Helping a sage-grouse found only in western Colorado and Utah recover its numbers enough to no longer require federal Endangered Species Act protections apparently will be neither a quick nor cheap undertaking.
A draft recovery plan the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released this week for the Gunnison sage-grouse, now listed federally as a threatened species, estimates it could take a half-century and more than a half-billion dollars worth of efforts to delist the bird.
The bird is found only in eight western Colorado counties, including Mesa County, and in one county in eastern Utah. Colorado Parks and Wildlife currently estimates its total population at something over 3,000. Most Gunnison sage-grouse live in the Gunnison Basin.
The newly released plan lists numerous actions for helping the species recover. The actions would be developed by the Fish and Wildlife Service collaboratively with federal, state, nongovernment organizations and local stakeholders, the plan says.
"We estimate that the full implementation of these actions would improve the status of (Gunnison sage-grouse) so that it could be delisted within 50 years following the adoption of this plan," the plan says.
The estimated total cost is nearly $561 million, which includes volunteer and in-kind support as well as financial expenses.
The biggest-ticket expense is nearly $309 million that would be paid acquiring conservation easements or outright buying private lands. Forty-three percent of the bird's currently occupied habitat is on private land. Conservation easements already have been used as a tool for protecting the bird's habitat in the case of its Mesa County population on Piñon Mesa.
Erik Molvar, with the Western Watersheds Project conservation group, said conservation easements are "necessary and helpful" in the recovery effort, but only keep habitat from degrading, and efforts also need to be directed toward making habitat better.
The draft recovery plan lists measures such as invasive weed treatment and better livestock grazing practices for improving habitat.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says the recovery effort could cost $125 million in the form of Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service programs that can benefit grouse habitat.
The draft plan estimates that land-use planning could cost $54 million; utility corridor management, nearly $29 million; and predator management, about $11.3 million.
Molvar said the recovery cost estimate sounds high, and he questioned, for example, the land-use planning estimate.
"Maybe they're folding in costs for salaries that would be paid anyway," he said of that line item.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Jennifer Strickland pointed to the long timeframe covered by the total cost, as opposed to the five-year cost estimates the plan also contains. It shows, for example, about an $85.7 million cost for the first five years.
She said in an email that "for folks who care about the bird and its recovery, breaking down the costs into smaller chunks may help people see the big picture a bit better."
The Bureau of Land Management manages about 42% of the Gunnison sage-grouse's occupied habitat. Conservation groups argue that the Fish and Wildlife Services and BLM are working at cross purposes, with the BLM providing inadequate habitat safeguards in its management plans, including its proposed plan for the lands covered by its Uncompahgre Field Office. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources has raised the same concern with that plan.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's draft recovery plan says the BLM "is a critical partner" in the Gunnison sage-grouse's recovery.
"Establishing durable regulatory mechanisms that are binding and enforceable, such as revised land use planning amendments, will be important for recovery," the plan says.
Strickland said a recovery plan can help address inconsistent approaches when it comes to the Gunnison sage-grouse.
"Recovery plans are non-regulatory documents that help to guide all the collaborators working to conserve this bird, from FWS to BLM to local counties in the bird's habitat, to take steps towards achieving the shared conservation criteria the plan outlines in order to get us to species recovery," she said.