Colorado wildlife officials disappointed by listing proposal
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Despite ongoing voluntary conservation measures, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said this week that the best available science indicates that the Gunnison sage-grouse is in danger of extinction and needs protection under the Endangered Species Act.
By some estimates, there are only about 4,000 to 5,000 of the iconic western birds remaining, scattered in eight small population pockets in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. As a result, the USFWS has proposed listing the species as endangered and also proposed designating about 1.7 million acres of critical habitat.
The proposal triggers a 60-day public comment period, with input due by March 12. The agency will also hold a series of public meetings to take input from residents and landowners in areas that could be affected by the listing. The meetings will likely be held in Gunnison, Montrose, Delta and Cortez, Colorado, or in Monticello, Utah and will be advertised at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/.
“We applaud the combined efforts of our many agency and local partners, as well as private landowners across the species’ range, for their efforts to address the significant challenges faced by the Gunnison sage-grouse,” said Noreen Walsh, regional director of the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region. “In particular, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has worked diligently to conserve habitat through easements and conservation agreements with landowners. Continuation of these efforts will be essential for the recovery of the species, and we look forward to receiving additional scientific and technical information about the species from our partners and the public before making a final decision,” Walsh said.
The listing proposal wasn’t completely unexpected, but still elicited “major disappointment” within Colorado Parks and Wildlife, according to Kathy Griffin, who has helped coordinate Gunnison sage-grouse conservation efforts for the state wildlife agency.
Griffin said state biologists will be scrutinizing the proposed listing rule during the coming weeks before the state makes formal comments.
“We’ll be looking at how they value, or don’t value, the conservation efforts that have been put place … They’re putting a lot of value in the Gunnison population,” she said, explaining that the sage-grouse stronghold in the Gunnison Valley is probably the key to the overall survival of the species, given that most of the other populations are small and potentially susceptible to catastrophic extinction.
Griffin said state biologists had hoped that the USFWS could separate the Gunnison-area population in the overall listing, but federal biologists said the Gunnison population didn’t meet scientific criteria as a distinct population segment.
Gunnison sage-grouse are among the most imperiled species in the United States. Audubon has identified the bird as one of the ten most endangered in the country. The Endangered Species Coalition also declared Gunnison sage-grouse as one of the most imperiled species in the nation.
The U.S. Department of Interior 2009 State of the Birds report found that western deserts and grasslands—home to Gunnison sage-grouse and other sensitive wildlife—are among the most degraded habitats in the country.
“The Gunnison sage-grouse might finally get the protection it deserves,” said Mark Salvo, Wildlife Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “Federal listing will buttress efforts to conserve the species.”
“The Gunnison sage-grouse is an important part of the web of the life in Western Colorado. Endangered Species Act protection for sage-grouse will help protect not only this fascinating bird, but also habitat for other wildlife, including elk, deer and antelope,” said Megan Mueller, biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild. “We have a responsibility to leave the world a better place for future generations and that means being good stewards of the land and protecting habitat for all wildlife.”
Mueller said the biggest threat to the Gunnison-area population of the sage-grouse remains habitat fragmentation from urban and exurban sprawl and development, along with the associated infrastructure.
She credited the local collaborative group for its hard work in protecting sage grouse in the Gunnison Valley, and said that population has stabilized in large part because of those efforts. But given the overall declining trend toward extinction, the listing proposal was probably inevitable, based on the existing science, she explained.
The listing proposal will raise concerns among local residents and landowners, who may feel like they’ll face restrictions on what they can and can’t do on their own property. But landowners who have signed on to the voluntary conservation agreements could get some breaks in the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, she said. A final listing decision could exempt parties to the conservation agreement from some of the formal consultations generally required under the law.
Mueller also emphasized that a formal listing could help get some federal funding for local conservation efforts, including grants for conservation projects that benefit listed species, habitat conservation planning grants and land grants that could help pay for conservation easements.
In the Gunnison area, about 70 percent of the land proposed as critical habitat is public, with 29 percent in private hands; range-wide, the split is about 60-40.
The Gunnison sage-grouse is a large, ground-nesting bird known for elaborate courtship displays. The booming calls of male sage-grouse have long been associated with the arrival of spring on the sagebrush steppe of the West.
The Gunnison sage-grouse now occupies about 7 percent percent of its historic range. Approximately 5,000 breeding birds remain in sagebrush and adjacent meadow and streamside habitats in and around the Gunnison Basin in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.
In a press release, the USFWS said work remains to stabilize the other six remaining populations outside the Gunnison Basin and to address threats throughout the bird’s range, particularly habitat fragmentation resulting from increased development activity.
The agency explained that its proposal to designate critical habitat is required under the Endangered Species Act. Specifying the habitat essential for the conservation of the species helps federal agencies identify where to focus their efforts to benefit the species.
Finalizing the listing and any potential critical habitat designation would not necessarily result in any restrictions on human activities. Only if an activity required federal actions, funding or permitting would the agency in question need to work with the Service to avoid, reduce or mitigate potential impacts to the species or its habitat should it be listed.
For more information about the Gunnison sage-grouse and copies of each proposal, visit the Service’s web site at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/gunnisonsagegrouse.