Draft plan includes population, habitat goals for delisting
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A draft Recovery Plan will soon be released outlining steps toward delisting the Gunnison Sage-grouse.
A draft Recovery Plan will soon be released outlining steps toward delisting the Gunnison Sage-grouse.

While Gunnison Sage-grouse population numbers have declined over the last four years, federal agents are penciling out what recovery looks like for the species listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) soon will release its draft Recovery Plan for the bird, whose greatest population lies in the Gunnison Basin.

After the bird was determined to be threatened in 2015, local conservation efforts have been underway in an attempt to preserve the species and avoid a potential “endangered” listing, which carries much more stringent restrictions. The draft Recovery Plan is the next step in fulfilling requirements under the threatened listing and sets both population and habitat goals which must be achieved for the bird to be delisted.

“Things can change over time — it’s not set in stone forever,” said FWS Regional Director Noreen Walsh.

FWS representatives met with stakeholders in Gunnison last week to explain the three-step process for Recovery Planning and Implementation under the ESA. While the draft Recovery Plan has yet to be released, FWS officials outlined its contents during the meeting.

The first step in the planning process — a Species Status Assessment (SSA) — was completed last April. It includes details about each of the eight populations of grouse, said FWS biologist Allison Vendramel.

The SSA informs the second step — the Recovery Plan — which outlines criteria, actions, time and cost involved in achieving target population and habitat goals. Once released, the public will have 60 days to offer input on the Recovery Plan.

Finally, a Recovery Implementation Strategy will be created to fulfill delisting criteria. Vendramel noted that each step can be revised and expanded as more information is learned in the process.


The road to recovery

The current draft Recovery Plan, Vendramel said, calls for resiliency, redundancy and representation for the species, and that objective and measurable thresholds would signify when recovery likely has been met.

Resiliency, she said, is dependent upon population numbers and the bird’s ability to adapt to annual climate fluctuations, while redundancy is reliant upon the number of grouse and their distribution. Finally, representation is indicated by the bird’s ability to adapt to change, its genetic make-up, behavior and ecological conditions. All three qualities must be demonstrated for the bird to be delisted.

The plan sets population and habitat goals as well. Five of the eight grouse populations will be subject to “high-male count” targets and habitation requirements. For the high-male count target, a running three-year average was determined over the course of at least seven consecutive years.

During the time period used for the calculation, the bird’s population numbers were highest. From the high-male count, population estimates are generated.

Populations which must achieve high-male count and habitat targets are located in the Gunnison and San Miguel basins, Piñon Mesa, Crawford and Monticello. The Gunnison Basin, Vendramel said, demonstrates the greatest resiliency.

Two of the Gunnison Sagegrouse populations — Dove Creek and the Cerro Summit-Cimarron-Sims Mesa (CSCSM) — will only be required to have the amount of habitat which could potentially support a high-male count target, without actually requiring the number of males.

High-male count for Dove Creek is set at 30 while the same target for CSCSM is only seven.


Efforts to improve some populations

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Grouse Conservation Coordinator Kathy Griffin estimates the Gunnison Basin’s population at 2,862 and the bird’s population throughout its entire range at 3,299. Those numbers have declined from high estimates in 2016 of 4,440 and 5,141, respectively.

She speculated that the decline was due to two years of drought followed by a harsh winter with late and heavy snows.

Griffin said grouse numbers for both the Gunnison and greater sage-grouse are down across their range in virtually every state, indicating it may be due to normal population fluctuations.

In Gunnison County, efforts have focused on improving habitat and minimizing future impacts to the grouse. In 2006, the county adopted regulations that seek to minimize development conflicts through its landuse review process.

By way of comparison, San Miguel County has taken a different approach than Gunnison County to preserve habitat and protect the bird by focusing on conservation easements. However, like other satellite populations, county leaders have only seen a declining trend in the annual counts, said San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper.

The San Miguel Basin population, she said, continues to be threatened by oil and gas activity, powerlines, habitat fragmentation and weather changes, and her county is learning from Gunnison County’s example.

“Much of our Gunison Sagegrouse habitat is on BLM land and we are actively engaged in protests and litigation against Bureau of Land Management actions that directly impact occupied habitat and threaten the bird, specifically with oil and gas activity,” Cooper told the Times. “The county is currently developing a GIS analysis in order to guide the most effective actions based on the latest science and lessons learned from the more successful efforts in the Gunnison Basin population.”


Steps toward delisting

Recovery actions offered in the draft Recovery Plan include site-specific interventions. Areas prioritized to minimize stressors such as noise and development would be within the four-mile radius of an active lek, according to the plan.

The draft recommends improving public awareness, offering incentives and resources to conserve and improve habitat quality and quantity and better data collection. Recovery actions include relocating Gunnison Basin birds to other populations which have enough habitat to sustain them, and conserving existing habitats by improving management plans.

Finally, delisting the bird was defined during last week’s meeting. Once a species is delisted, Vendramel said a community must decide if it wants to maintain measures which have resulted in recovery.

“Delisting is the Fish and Wildlife using a biological rationale to say, ‘This species does not need the protection of the ESA,’” said Vendramel, noting that when targets are achieved the federal agency exits the picture.

Still, she questioned whether communities would have the will to keep a species such as the grouse from being relisted.

“We’ve reached a threshold,” she said of the situation that exists when targets are met. “Does a community want to stay above that threshold?”

Recovery Implementation Strategy workshops are scheduled throughout the bird’s population area in January. The final draft of the Recovery Plan is slated for approval in October 2020.


(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at chris.rourke@gunnisontimes.com .)