Conservation groups frustrated with Obama administration’s lack of progress on endangered species protection
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — In a setback for a rare Colorado bird, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists said Monday the Gunnison sage grouse won’t get protection under the Endangered Species Act — even though the species qualifies for listing, and existing conservation measures don’t go far enough.
Gunnison sage grouse live only in a few isolated areas in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The federal agency said the species qualifies for listing based on the best available scientific information, but claimed it lacks the resources to finalize a listing rule, and that other species are in greater need of protection. Best estimates indicated there are only about 4,000 breeding individuals left.
The federal agency acknowledged that state and local collaborative conservation efforts are not adequate to address the threats to the bird. Research shows the birds need large expanses of unfragmented blocks of sagebrush habitat. Residential development, road building and oil and gas drilling are the main threats to Gunnison sage grouse habitat.
“All of the conservation efforts are limited in size and have not been implemented at the scale (even when considered cumulatively) that would be required to effectively reduce the threats to the species across its range,” the feds wrote in their formal decision.
The agency made a similar ruling for the greater sage grouse in March, raising concerns among environmental activists that the endangered species program is about to swamped by tsunami of extinctions. Their frustration was evident in the strongly worded releases sent out by conservation groups.
“Here we go again,” said Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians. “The government has now determined that greater sage grouse, Mono Basin sage grouse, the Columbia Basin population and now Gunnison sage grouse all warrant protection under the ESA, but hasn’t listed any of them.”
“The Service first acknowledged a decade ago that the Gunnison sage grouse is threatened with extinction,” said Amy Atwood, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is the latest in a series of decisions to avoid protecting this iconic bird that amount to navel-gazing and a tremendous waste of resources.”
According to Atwood, the decision continues an unfortunate trend by the Obama administration of failing to list species its own biologists have determined to be imperiled. She said it’s the fifth time the Obama administration has used the out to avoid listing a species clearly in need of Endangered Species Act protection.
“Obama is on pace to outdo the Bush administration,” she said, explaining that mechanism (listing as warranted but precluded) was intended to be used in dire circumstances when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. But the agency has started using it routinely, to the detriment of the country’s biodiversity resources.
“On average, species stay on the list for 20 years when the agency chooses this course, hampering recovery efforts,” she added.
Federal biologists said they’ll rely on a continued partnership with state wildlife agencies to protect the Gunnison sage grouse.
“While the Service has found that the Gunnison Sage-grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, I strongly support our private and public conservation partners and their ongoing work to conserve this species,” said Stephen Guertin, regional director of the service’s mountain-prairie region. “The Service will continue to collaborate with the individuals, communities, agencies and organizations to improve the status of this imperiled species.”
Guertin said the feds and the Colorado Division of Wildlife will continue to work together on Gunnison sage grouse conservation. The state wildlife agency has launched a captive-breeding and translocation program and has worked with private landowners since 2006 on voluntary conservation agreements. The in-depth state research could help provide a basis for an effective protection strategy.
But the conservation groups say it’s not enough, pointing out that Gunnison sage grouse are among the most imperiled species in the United States. Audubon has identified the bird as one of the 10 most endangered in the country. The Endangered Species Coalition also declared Gunnison sage grouse as one of the most imperiled species in the nation. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s status report, The State of the Birds 2009, found that western deserts and grasslands — home to sage grouse and other sensitive species — are among the most degraded habitats in the country.
“The Gunnison sage grouse is a part of Colorado and Utah’s natural heritage that is in serious trouble,” said Megan Mueller, senior staff biologist at Center for Native Ecosystems. “It’s no surprise that we are losing Gunnison sage grouse when we are allowing oil and gas drilling, rapid development, and inappropriately managed livestock grazing in most of the grouse’s remaining habitat.”
“In order to truly protect Gunnison sage grouse, we need everyone to participate, including the local BLM field offices,” said Mueller. “Private conservation efforts are part of the solution, but all of us, from the smallest independent farmers to the large oil and gas companies, are going to have to do our part to keep this amazing bird here for future generations. That’s where the Endangered Species Act can make a difference.”
The Gunnison sage grouse is distinct from greater sage grouse, identified by researchers as early as the 1970s and recognized as a new species by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2000.
Atwood said Gunnison sage grouse show different behavioral characteristics than other sage grouse species and use a different ecosystem niche, slightly overlapping with other species.
As a separate species, the species has evolved to develop its own genetic traits over generations. Simply chopping off a branch of that evolutionary tree is not morally acceptable, she said.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Gunnison sage-grouse lives in the Gunnison Basin, San Miguel Basin, Monticello-Dove Creek, Pinon Mesa, Crawford, Cerro Summit-Cimarron-Sims Mesa, and Poncha Pass populations. The Gunnison Basin population is the largest and represents the best opportunity for long-term conservation of the species.
Gunnison sage-grouse historically occurred in southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, and southeastern Utah.
Both the Gunnison and greater sage-grouse are known for their elaborate mating rituals and are considered indicator species of the overall health of sagebrush ecosystems. The birds depend on a variety of shrub-steppe habitats throughout their life cycle and are dependent on sagebrush. Their diet consists of 100 percent sagebrush in the winter, and forbs and insects during the remainder of the year. In addition to serving as a primary year-round food source, sagebrush also provides cover for nests and from predators. Thus, Gunnison sage-grouse distribution
Gunnison sage-grouse exhibit strong loyalty to particular areas that provide for their breeding, nesting, brood rearing, and wintering seasonal habitat needs.
The remaining 4,000 to 4,500 Gunnison sage-grouse currently occupy approximately 940,000 acres scattered across the seven isolated populations. The Gunnison Basin population encompasses approximately 590,000 acres and over 87 percent of the species’ total number of birds. The remaining six populations contain highly fragmented patches of sagebrush habitat, from 10 to approximately 200 birds each.
For more information about the Gunnison sage-grouse, visit the USFWS web site, or contact Dan Reinkensmeyer or Al Pfister at ( 970)243-2778 ext. 39 and 29, respectively.