Gunnison sage grouse recovery plan stops lawsuit

U.S. Fish and Wildlife has 30 months to submit a draft plan to recover the threatened species.

 

The Gunnison sage grouse will gain greater protections in the coming years, thanks to a recovery plan that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to draft over the next 30 months. The bird has been considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 2014 due to habitat loss and fragmentation. 

The agreement, announced on April 30, came after four conservation groups had previously announced a lawsuit against the agency that argued the Gunnison sage grouse merited an endangered status. Instead, a compromise was reached between the groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service that a lawsuit would not be pursued if a recovery plan was created by the agency.

With approximately 4,000 of the birds left in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, divided into seven isolated populations — six of which are in decline — the plan has been welcomed as a productive way to aid the dwindling species. “A robust recovery plan is a good first step toward preventing the grouse’s extinction,” Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs, said in a news release. 

Gunnison sage grouse will get a recovery plan to help their numbers, heading off a lawsuit from conservationists.

During the next two-and-a-half years, the agency will draft a plan, adhering to several stipulations outlined by the conservation groups. The first requires that the agency create a Species Status Assessment. This is a scientific assessment that the Fish and Wildlife Service started using toward the end of the Obama administration. It was implemented as a way to fully capture the best scientific information available for a species in order to ensure sound policy decisions are being made. Part of the assessment stage includes looking at what a species needs to survive, examining what in their current environment is impeding their survival and evaluating ways the species’ resiliency will play out in the future.

Based on this framework, the agency will be required to identify the factors that are contributing to the Gunnison sage grouse’s decline as well as identifying “possible ways to reach recovery,” the agreement states. Some of those strategies include examining all agency-related actions that can minimize threats, identifying monitoring needs to ensure progress in recovering the species is being made and establishing population targets.

Furthermore, the plan requires that the agency is collaborative in its process, working with recognized experts and stakeholders throughout the planning stages. According to a news release, the public also will have the opportunity to weigh in on the draft plan when it is released by the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Past and current conservation efforts have failed this magnificent bird,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians, also a plaintiff in the case. “We are hopeful a robust, science-based recovery plan will finally get Gunnison sage grouse on the road to recovery.”

While environmentalists were able to reach an agreement in this case, lawsuits have been filed in Idaho and Montana over protections for the greater sage grouse, a bird found in 11 Western states related to the Gunnison sage grouse. The lawsuits, which were filed Monday, state that the recent sale of oil and gas leases in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada ignore plans that were created during the Obama administration to prevent the bird from becoming listed as an endangered species.

Jessica Kutz is an editorial intern at High Country News.

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