Recent headlines regarding the draft Gunnison sage-grouse recovery plan have focused on the projected cost of the plan: $561 million over 10 years. This inflammatory figure neglects the substance of the plan, including the fact that it isn't based on scientific conservation requirements and defines "recovery" as a population smaller than the size that triggered the threatened listing in the first place. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has set the recovery population target of 3,669 grouse in the Gunnison Basin, fewer than the 3,978 birds that existed when the species was found to be threatened with extinction.
The biggest problem with the plan isn't its cost. After all, saving native wildlife also improves the quality of life for all other beings, including humans, that rely on these habitats. But the plan is riddled with politically expedient band-aids like translocating grouse, which has been attempted for years without much success. Likewise, the plan's emphasis on killing native predators is discredited in the science as a viable means of boosting grouse population numbers. The agency's plan clearly fails to come to grips with the real problems facing Gunnison sage-grouse: the loss, fragmentation, and degradation of the bird's habitat.
Livestock grazing threatens Gunnison sage-grouse survival almost everywhere and poses one of the biggest roadblocks to recovery. Current land management plans allow for too much of the annual vegetation growth to be removed by livestock, even within designated critical habitat of the bird. This agency-sanctioned overgrazing deprives the birds and their nests of hiding cover they need to escape detection by their natural predators. Colorado's 2005 Rangewide Conservation Plan calls for maintaining only 4 inches of grass cover on grazed lands. Four-inch-tall grass is not enough, despite the wishful thinking of area ranchers. No one would dispute that the vast majority of Gunnison grouse range can produce grass taller than the 7 inches the birds require in the absence of livestock grazing.
Perhaps the biggest hidden cost of livestock grazing is the miles of barbed-wire strung across grouse habitat to control livestock. These fences need to be removed. In one Wyoming study, a five-mile stretch of barbed-wire killed 146 sage-grouse over a 2½-year period. An untold mileage of fence stretches across the Gunnison sage- grouse range, and the recovery plan fails to emphasize the removal of these deathtraps.
Better still, permanent, and cheaper for taxpayers than the other recovery actions would be removing livestock grazing from the public lands altogether. Western Watersheds Project has calculated that, at current market rates, it would cost just $17.9 million dollars to buy out all the public lands grazing leases in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat. Heck, even at double the market rates, buy-out would be a bargain compared with the other aspects of the plan. Accomplishing this would require Colorado to adopt the model of federal legislation that applies in parts of Idaho, which permanently closes allotments that are bought out.
It would be easy to stop leasing sage grouse habitats on public lands for oil and gas development, to withdraw them from mining, and to place a moratorium on industrial development of all kinds, from gravel pits to oil fields to wind farms. And it would save the taxpayers permitting costs. None of these concrete and cost-effective conservation measures, however, are included in the draft recovery plan.
The Gunnison sage-grouse deserves a recovery plan with science-based habitat protections, and that might ruffle a few feathers. So far, no one — not the US Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM, Forest Service, or state or local governments — is stepping up to deliver the needed protections.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comment on the draft recovery plan through December 31, 2019.
Erik Molvar and Greta Anderson direct Western Watersheds Project, an environmental conservation nonprofit working to protect and preserve watersheds and wildlife throughout the West. Visit WWP online at www.western watersheds.org.