Sage grouse deemed ‘endangered’
FWS' announces long-awaited proposal to list imperiled bird
Originally published 2013-01-17
Federal wildlife officials are proposing to list the Gunnison Sage-grouse with a status that affords the highest protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in an attempt to avoid extinction.
In the latest turn of events in an ongoing saga over the imperiled bird, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced a plan last week to designate the bird as “endangered” under the ESA. Simultaneously, FWS is proposing 1.7 million acres of “critical habitat” for the species’ conservation.
With the proposal comes a 60-day comment period, and FWS leaders have until Sept. 30 of this year to make a final determination.
While FWS leaders have indicated for years that the bird would likely be “listed,” the proposal comes close to confirming the worst fears of those locally who have worked to prevent such an outcome. At the same time, environmentalists close to the issue are hailing the recent announcement.
Over the last decade, the species’ ESA status has been batted back and forth like a badminton birdie, but the latest announcement may signal a foreseeable end to the uncertainty — though not in the direction that many locals hoped it would go.
Countless conservation easements, habitat improvement projects and efforts aimed at stemming the tide of regulation — should the grouse ultimately receive ESA protection — have consumed local government leaders and landowners alike for the better part of a decade.
FWS officials recognize that the Gunnison Basin population of the bird — by far the largest — is stable. It’s declines to six other, satellite populations of the grouse throughout southwest Colorado and southeastern Utah that appear to have swayed FWS officials.
“The ability of all remaining populations and habitat areas to retain the attributes required for long-term sustainability of this landscape-scale species is highly diminished, causing the species to meet the definition of endangered,” FWS leaders wrote in a prepared statement last week.
Impacts from listing still unclear
Agency leaders contend that the Gunnison Sage-grouse now occupies only approximately seven percent of its historic range.
Habitat loss and fragmentation from roads and powerlines is the principal threat to the species, according to FWS.
“From what I understand and what we’ve been told, ‘endangered’ means the full force of the law,” said Gunnison County Wildlife Conservation Coordinator Jim Cochran.
Of course, exactly what that means is still unclear.
It’s long been feared that a listing decision could mean far-reaching federal regulations on land use. However, Patty Gelatt, FWS’ supervisor in Grand Junction, suggested that is not necessarily the case.
Should the agency ultimately decide to list the bird, critical habitat would only come into play if a proposed activity includes a federal “nexus.” For example, if that proposal is on federal land, requires a federal permit or government funding is involved, she said.
Under a listing scenario, consultation with the FWS could be required for private landowners if its determined that a proposal would be a “take” of the species, she added.
Programs could lessen the blow
But initiatives in the Gunnison Basin over the course of the last decade have sought to lessen the impact on both landowners and users of public land, should the species be listed.
The Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) — an agreement between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and FWS — seeks to allow ranchers the opportunity to continue their operations much as they always have despite a potential listing. Last summer, 11 landowners rangewide had entered into the program and 16 more were in the process of being approved — totalling 51,000 acres in all.
Likewise, the local office of the Bureau of Land Management has taken the lead in developing a similar sort of agreement for public lands. It’s called a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA), and would provide a management scheme for how current activities could continue.
FWS has yet to approve the document, though grouse conservation proponents are hoping that will happen prior to a final listing determination.
Gelatt called this a “screening tool” for specific proposals on public land. “We’re supportive of the CCA,” she said, noting that projects that would fall outside its scope would still require consultation.
Megan Mueller, a biologist with Denver-based environmental group Rocky Mountain Wild, suggested that both the federal-lands CCA and the private-lands CCAA “will reduce the regulations even more for people in Gunnison County,” should the sage grouse become listed.
Further, Mueller noted that federal funding — for conservation planning and protection of habitat — becomes available only when a species is listed.
Litigation on the horizon?
Additionally, for the last six years, Gunnison County’s own sage grouse preservation efforts have taken flight through a program that includes land use, conservation and education components.
But what more can be done?
“I think you’ll hear that question everyplace,” said Cochran. “What more can be done, besides stopping all human activity?”
In 2000, FWS decided that declines in the population of the Gunnison Sage-grouse made it warranted for listing — thus designating the bird a “candidate” species.
Then, in 2006, FWS determined that listing the bird was not warranted, thereby removing it as a candidate species. But it was subsequently discovered that Bush Administration officials improperly interfered with decision-making for several species, including the Gunnison Sage-grouse.
In September 2010, FWS again designated the sage grouse a candidate species. And a monumental settlement between FWS and two environmental groups was reached in 2011 that committed the agency to a timeline for making final listing decisions for the Gunnison Sage-grouse and other species.
For Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians — one of those two environmental groups — FWS’ proposed “endangered” designation was no surprise.
“It’s important for conservation of the Gunnison Sage-grouse,” he said.
For a species whose fate has been largely driven by one lawsuit after another, time will tell whether FWS’ final determination in September is actually the end-all to more than a decade of regulatory uncertainty.
In 2006, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association filed a suit in support of FWS’ decision not to list the sage grouse.
The association last week decried the recently proposed listing of the bird.
“There is much to understand and react to before a decision to file a lawsuit is made, not the least of which is close consultation with our members and affiliated local cattlemen’s associations who will be impacted by such a decision by FWS,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president for the group. “At this time, we would not rule out this legal avenue, though.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com)