A scarce bird tests the new rule

The Gunnison sage grouse thrives in open country

  • Rancher Mark Le Valley in Gunnison sage grouse habitat

    Ali Macalady photo
  • Gunnison sage grouse

    L. Swift photo courtesy Jessica Young, Western State College
 

CRAWFORD, Colo. - The Gunnison sage grouse has become the first test case for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ban on petitions aimed at putting candidate species on the endangered species list.

Once one of the high desert's most abundant game birds, sage grouse have declined 45-80 percent over the past 20 years. In the early 1900s, says Clait Braun, a sage grouse expert formerly with the Colorado Department of Wildlife, "people saw them by the thousands, shot them by the hundreds, and lived on them for the whole winter." Today, only about 150,000 sage grouse remain. This includes 4,000 Gunnison sage grouse, now considered a separate species, which live in isolated populations in southwestern Colorado and Utah. It's "a whale of a decrease," says Braun.

Part of all sage grouses' vulnerability stems from the fact that "they are landscape-scale birds," says Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist Stan Stiver. "They need big, big chunks of country." Years of habitat fragmentation by agriculture, development, overgrazing, fire suppression and the invasion of non-native grasses, he says, have all contributed to the bird's decline.

Five years ago, in an effort to keep the Gunnison sage grouse off the endangered species list, Crawford rancher Mark Le Valley and other local ranchers started meeting with land managers and biologists to create a conservation plans for the birds.

Today, the hills around Le Valley's ranch are striped like contours on a topo map. Sage brush and juniper have been removed in swaths 100 yards wide, and light snow accentuates the alternating cleared and brush-covered paths. Le Valley explains that the clearings create habitat for the sage grouse, which need a patchwork of sage brush and grass.

"The sage brush was all the same age class out here," he says, "and that's bad for the birds."

Le Valley says the technique may be working - the sage grouse population near Crawford has doubled and the model is taking off elsewhere in Colorado and in other states.

Not everyone is convinced that voluntary conservation plans are enough. Last May, environmental groups petitioned to put a small sub-population of sage grouse in Washington state on the endangered list. Then in late January, a coalition of groups lead by the American Lands Alliance and Biodiversity Legal Foundation petitioned to list the Gunnison sage grouse.

The petition may have come too late, says Terry Ireland with the Fish and Wildlife Service's office in Grand Junction, because Regional Director Ralph Morgenweck had already signed paperwork making the grouse a candidate species, and therefore off-limits to petitions.

The service had proposed putting the grouse on the candidate list just weeks earlier, on Jan. 10, in part to duck petitions from outside groups. "After considering the legal process constraints and increased workload resulting from a petition, the service decided that placing the Gunnison sage grouse on our candidate list now is the best option," agency staffers wrote in a memo to seven Colorado sage grouse working groups.

Even if the petition stands, says Ireland, it could be years before the bird is officially listed. In the meantime, it is in the hands of ranchers such as Mark Le Valley and their consensus-based conservation plans.

"We studied the conservation planning that's occurred to date. We certainly wish (it) could have done the trick," says American Lands Grassland Coordinator Mark Salvo. "But the fact of the matter is, there needs to be a safety net for the (Gunnison sage grouse). They are the canary in the mine. If this bird isn't doing well, nothing else is."

The author, a former HCN intern, writes in Paonia, Colorado. Tony Davis contributed to this report.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Terry Ireland, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 764 Horizon Dr., South Annex A, Grand Junction, CO 81506-8721. (970/243-2778).
  • Mark Salvo, American Lands Alliance, 5825 N. Greeley, Portland, OR 97217 (503/978-1054).

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