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Know the West

Gunnison sage grouse gets divisive 'threatened' listing

The decision upsets enviros and industry alike.


Clait Braun sounded like a man in confessional when I reached him to talk about Gunnison sage grouse. The retired leader of bird research for Colorado’s wildlife department from 1973 to 1999, Braun was part of the team of biologists and geneticists who successfully made the case in 2000 to recognize the species as distinct from the larger and more widely distributed Greater sage grouse. He’s also been witness to populations of Gunnison sage grouse disappearing across western Colorado and southern Utah due to loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitat from the spread of houses, oil and gas wells and livestock.

The Gunnison sage grouse, a subspecies of Greater sage grouse, was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act this week.
“I watched smaller populations go to nothing and I couldn’t stop them,” says Braun, who has argued for Endangered Species Act protection for the bird for decades, “and so I failed.”

This past Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to list the Gunnison sage grouse as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The decision stirred the usual, um, grousing from camps both in support and opposition to federal protection for the small bird. The total count of just 5,000 birds is mostly centered in Gunnison County, Colorado, and six smaller satellite populations are hanging on in other areas.

Environmentalists, including two groups that have forced Fish and Wildlife listing decisions on more than 250 species, felt the announcement didn’t go far enough. A “threatened” listing carries fewer habitat protections and development restrictions than an “endangered” one, which was originally proposed in January 2013. (Talks of listing the Gunnison grouse date back even further; I covered the agency’s decision not to list the species in 2006.) That leaves the door open for continued oil and gas development and grazing and more residential growth in the bird’s historic range. Braun, who has waited years for this moment, shared the disappointment and calls the threatened determination “a sham.” He will likely join with WildEarth Guardians in suing the government for downgrading the listing.

Meanwhile, ranchers, local governments, and the energy industry complained that the decision to list the grouse ignored voluntary agreements to protect sagebrush habitat. Voluntary agreements to remove juniper and restore sagebrush or alter grazing plans cover nearly 400,000 public acres in the Gunnison Basin and another 94,000 acres of private lands across western Colorado. Terry Fankhauser of the Colorado Cattleman’s Association said the listing will now “chill” voluntary support – which is exactly why environmentalists question the value of such actions that can be halted at any time. Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe said the decision to list this time, despite the voluntary pledges, doesn’t mean other looming cases, such as that of the West-wide Greater sage grouse, will go the same way.

Under the listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service will designate 1.4 million acres as “critical habitat” for the grouse, which is still a fraction of the species’ historic range. But in previous comments to the agency, the Western Energy Alliance and other industry groups said that almost half of the designated area is vacant or only potential grouse territory, so shouldn’t include any drilling restrictions. Backing up those concerns, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has also threatened to sue the feds for listing the bird at all.

How federal protection for the Gunnison sage grouse will impact oil and gas development isn’t clear. Terry Riley, conservation policy director for the nonprofit Grouse Partnership, says industry has been coy in disclosing how prime oil and gas resources overlap with critical habitat. Dropping oil prices could slow development – and conflicts between drill rigs and grouse – even if the ESA doesn’t. But, he adds, it will be difficult to revoke or suspend drilling leases that have already been issued.

“The thing we have to do is stop the bleeding – any more habitat fragmentation or sagebrush conversion has to be stopped until we get populations back up to a restoration goal,” Riley says. “Until we do that, any oil and gas development or houses built in habitat is going to contribute to the decline.”

With lawsuits on the horizon, the fate of the Gunnison sage grouse is far from settled. Braun, who continues to publish research on the species, fears a more existential deadline. He suggests the grouse could face extinction in a few decades, especially if wildfire or disease knocks back the main population in Gunnison. “This might have had some merit 15 years ago,” Braun says, of the threatened listing. Now, “it’s too little, too late.”

Joshua Zaffos is a contributing editor for High Country News. Follow him on Twitter on @jzaffos.