WASHINGTON, D.C. – With six months until an administrative rule on whether the Gunnison sage-grouse will be protected under the Endangered Species Act, a new piece of legislation is ramping up efforts to delay a listing for 10 years.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, introduced the Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act on May 22. The measure would keep both the Gunnison and greater sage-grouse from becoming listed as an endangered species for 10 years, while states implement state-based conservation plans. The move comes after almost a decade of debate about whether the grouse should be listed, amid concerns from private landowners, ranchers and the energy sector.
This is good politics but bad science, said Fred Cheever, a professor of environmental and natural resources law at Sturm College of Law in Denver and an expert in the Endangered Species Act.
“A lot of this fight has to do with oil and gas,” Cheever said. “The fundamental problem with delaying 10 years is we’ve already delayed the listing for more than a decade, and the longer you wait to list, the harder and more expensive it is to recover the grouse.”
The Gunnison sage-grouse is found only in Colorado and Utah, and an estimated 4,600 birds are left; the greater sage-grouse may have close to half a million scattered through 11 states. The Fish and Wildlife Service suggested listing the Gunnison sage-grouse as threatened rather than endangered during the most recent delay in listing, allowing various industries more flexibility in activities that might disrupt habitat, as long as they comply with conservation plans approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Colorado, the federal government spent $24 million to help landowners protect grouse habitat, and Jim Cochran, the Gunnison Wildlife Conservation coordinator in Gunnison County, said the state also funneled millions of dollars into conservation efforts. Cochran said in Gunnison County, where the largest population of Gunnison sage-grouse live, the worry is when a final listing comes, it will alienate private landowners who have been working with local governments.
“It’s been hanging over our heads since 1995,” Cochran said. “A proposed listing moves everything to the front burner and gets people’s attention, so we’ve had a lot of involvement from the communities and private landowners over the years.”
Habitat loss and fragmentation from energy development as well as wildfires, and invasive species in some areas, have caused the greatest threats to sage-grouse, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service report on the birds.
“We think of sage-grouse as ‘umbrella species.’ They use the sagebrush ecosystem, and if they aren’t doing well, that means other species using that ecosystem are likely impacted also,” said Kathy Griffin, wildlife biologist and the statewide conservation coordinator for the grouse.
In 2011, after a slew of lawsuits and petitions on the long process of listing endangered species, the Interior Department settled with environmental groups and agreed to address the listing of a backlog of 250 species, including the greater sage-grouse within six years. Cheever said the new bill is essentially a shot in the dark to further slow the listing.
“It’s not clear if Gardner’s bill would actually prevent the federal government from meeting its obligation to list the grouse within six years,” Cheever said. “If the bill passed, Congress would be instructing the federal government to break their settlement promise to list the species.”
An 11-county coalition was formed in 2013 to continue implementing conservation efforts on the county levels where the Gunnison sage-grouse live in Utah and Colorado. U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, have been supportive of efforts to keep conservation on local, community-based levels. In addition, Tipton supports the Sage Grouse Conservation Act.
While Cochran said we all benefit from the existence of a functioning natural world, there is a profound and long-lasting disagreement about if achieving that goal should be through a listing under the Endangered Species Act or through local management efforts.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary Bowerman is graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.
Mark Udall was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story.