Conservation agreements try to head off endangered species listings

by Joshua Zaffos

With the arrival of spring in western Colorado's Gunnison River Basin comes the bizarre mating ritual of the Gunnison sage grouse. In clearings called leks, males gather to show off extravagant courtship dances, slapping their wings against their bodies and filling and popping the two air sacs on their breasts.

Spring also heralds another local rite: In meeting rooms, public-lands ranchers, wildlife biologists, mountain bikers and government officials gather to discuss how to help the Gunnison grouse. Hanging on in 10 percent of its historical habitat across western Colorado and pieces of Utah, the rare bird and its better-known cousin, the larger, wider-ranging greater sage grouse, are among hundreds of candidate species being considered for federal endangered species protection.

The working group is close to committing to a voluntary plan with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Gunnison grouse and its public-land habitat. Candidate conservation agreements, as these plans are called, are often intended to keep a species from being listed. But land managers aren't assuming this last-minute agreement will keep the grouse off the roster. Instead, stakeholders hope that the recovery measures will be good enough so that, even if the grouse is listed, restrictions placed on land use will be less severe. Fish and Wildlife will decide by the end of September.

With reams of other listing decisions now looming, participation in candidate agreements is growing in the West. More than 1,000 plants and animals are slated for decisions by 2018 under settlement agreements between Fish and Wildlife and two environmental groups. In 2011, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity agreed to curtail their many lawsuits and listing petitions, while the agency pledged to process its candidate backlog. But before the agreements can affect listings or the regulations that accompany them, wildlife managers have to figure out if the programs are producing meaningful results.

The Gunnison grouse's conservation agreement will cover 397,000 acres of public lands, two-thirds of the bird's occupied habitat. It will keep recreation and ranching away from leks during key periods, and also monitor the impacts of roads, trails and grazing. Land managers have previously evaluated such disturbances separately; now, says Samantha Staley, project manager with the Bureau of Land Management's Gunnison field office, officials will be able to account for the cumulative effects.

The agreement complements efforts on private property, where some landowners have signed on to protect the Gunnison grouse through a similar tool, called "candidate conservation agreements with assurances." Through those pacts, ranchers, farmers and developers manage their lands to help candidate species -- with the guarantee that they won't face additional regulations if populations decline despite their efforts, or if the species is listed as threatened or endangered. Such agreements now cover more than 32,000 privately owned acres around western Colorado -- and interest is increasing as the listing decision draws near.

Voluntary agreements are taking off elsewhere, too. The dunes sagebrush lizard, which survives in a corner of southern New Mexico and west Texas, will receive a ruling this June. Candidate agreements for both public and private lands have been developed for over 90 percent of the lizard's New Mexico habitat in the past year, and energy interests have contributed $2.5 million, hoping to forestall a listing that would curtail development in the oil-rich Permian Basin. Voluntary measures will include treating encroaching mesquite in former sagebrush areas, removing old well pads, roads and trenches, and avoiding sand dunes used by the lizards. According to Fish and Wildlife, even actions that have been proposed, although not yet implemented, can "contribute to making it unnecessary to list a species." "If we can demonstrate enough practices and regulatory certainty," says Doug Burger, BLM Pecos District manager in New Mexico, "you would hope that would be given consideration in a listing decision."

With uncertainty over how the candidate agreements might affect various listings, scientists and environmentalists are also questioning the on-the-ground benefits. Some agreements require landowners and users to continue current practices and preserve existing vacant habitat without trying to restore populations or address major threats.

Eric Yensen, a College of Idaho professor, studies the southern Idaho ground squirrel -- another candidate species that has agreements with assurances in place. He says the programs can help prevent poisoning, shooting and similar responses, while easing reintroductions. But the agreements don't halt habitat loss or development, leading factors in the squirrels' decline. "If you get landowners to agree not to do anything that is going to hurt the species, that's positive, but it doesn't mean the species is safe," Yensen says.

Critics like Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians question what happens when voluntary efforts aren't enough to recover a species but landowners have been told there won't be additional restrictions. The agreements are "not sufficient or adequate to preclude listing," Salvo says, noting that participants can also quit with 60 days' notice.

Despite such concerns, the Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to expand the initiatives. Through July, the agency is collecting public comments on how incentives for voluntary programs can be improved to build more partnerships.

Even if the new wave of agreements doesn't sway upcoming listing decisions, the programs may deliver long-term dividends. The agreements for Gunnison sage grouse conservation could influence recovery efforts and listing for the greater sage grouse, which lives in 11 states, mostly in the West, and faces a listing decision in 2015.

"What happens with the Gunnison sage grouse is definitely going to give us some insight as to how we proceed with the greater sage grouse," says Francie Pusateri, of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which administers the private-land agreements for the bird. "But we can't yet answer the question of how effective the (candidate agreements) are going to be in practice."

© High Country News