Federal protections needed to protect dwindling Gunnison sage-grouse
FRISCO — A new report by conservation biologists suggests that local and state-based measures to protect Gunnison sage-grouse won’t prevent the species from sliding toward extinction.
With only about 5,000 remaining birds, the population is already at a high risk, and only strict federal conservation measures under the Endangered Species Act will help, according to Megan Mueller, a senior conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild.
The once-abundant species has dwindled dramatically as its habitat has been fragmented by energy and community development, as well as over-grazing. The battle over Gunnison sage-grouse conservation has become extremely political, with Colorado’s U.S. senators, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall both interfering in what should be a science-based process.
“While Gunnison and San Miguel Counties are at least making an effort to protect the Gunnison sage grouse, most counties in the range of the species are doing little or nothing to prevent the ongoing destruction and fragmentation of Gunnison sage grouse habitat,” said Mueller. “Taken together, the protections put in place so far are far too little to guarantee that Gunnison sage grouse will persist even at today’s low population levels.”
In order to be considered adequate to protect an imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act, local and state regulations need to demonstrate science-based effectiveness as well as a certainty that they will be implemented.
But right now, few of the local regulations to protect Gunnison sage grouse are mandatory.
“Most counties lack the kind of science-based protections that are needed to assure the survival of this spectacular bird,” said Erik Molvar, a biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “For example, some agencies are using a tiny 0.6-mile buffer around leks, or dancing and breeding sites, which only protects 4 percent of the most critical nesting habitat, and in spite of scientific studies that show that developments that occur farther out cause breeding populations to decline.”
The report also highlights livestock overgrazing as a pervasive threat. Overgrazing strips away the grasses needed for hiding cover by grouse during the critical nesting and early brood-rearing periods.
“Scientific studies have shown that sage grouse need grasses at least 7 inches tall to hide from predators,” Molvar said. “The current guidelines allow shorter grass heights that have no scientific basis, and most county plans don’t have any standards for grazing at all. In effect, overgrazing is stripping away the hiding cover, making sage grouse more vulnerable to predators that would have never been able to find the grouse under natural conditions.”
The report highlights the failure of the Bureau of Land Management, which manages slightly more than half of the habitat for the species, to apply science-based sage grouse protections in its land-use plans throughout the range of the Gunnison sage grouse.
Because the greater sage-grouse still occupies 56 percent if its historic range and has populations large enough to persist if threats are addressed, planning efforts by BLM and others have greater potential to emplace conservation measures that are adequate to conserve the species and alleviate the need for Endangered Species Act protections.
But Gunnison sage-grouse remain on only 7 percent of the species’ historic range, with a total population of fewer than 5,000 birds. Six of the seven remaining populations are so small and isolated that they are at risk of extirpation even in the absence of further threats.
“Given that the Gunnison sage grouse has fewer than 5,000 birds left in its worldwide population, it’s surprising that the BLM hasn’t already amended its Resource Management Plans to apply the protections that Gunnison sage grouse need to survive, as the agency is already doing for the greater sage grouse,” Mueller said. “Oil and gas development is already encroaching on key habitats of several Gunnison sage grouse populations, but there are few protections to prevent this type of industrial development from wiping out even more sage grouse habitat.”
Immediate and decisive action is necessary to put effective safeguards in place to protect Gunnison sage grouse, according to the groups.
“Endangered Species Act protection will add accountability to efforts to conserve the species, bringing additional federal funding to conservation efforts, ensuring that plans to conserve the bird are based on science and not politics, and buttressing the current piecemeal effort to conserve the species with a comprehensive, mandatory approach that requires everyone to do their fair share,” Mueller said. “Above all, it will ensure that future generations have the opportunity to be inspired by watching the Gunnison sage-grouse dance at first light, and to enjoy the abundant wildlife that depend on the same habitat, including elk, deer and antelope.”