On a wing and a prayer

Gunnison grouse must fend for survival without help of Endangered Species Act

  • The greater sage grouse, left, is about a third bigger than the Gunnison sage grouse. The two have different kinds of feathers and produce different sound using their yellow air sacs, and the Gunnison has a more elaborate and more colorful filoplume, which it tosses over its head during display. In March, the National Audubon Society named the Gunnison sage grouse one of American's 10 most endangered birds. It numbers around 5,000, while the greater numbers around 140,000.

    Louise Swift (L) and Rob Bennetts (R). Courtesy Jessica Young
 

It didn’t take Clait Braun long to notice something unusual about the sage grouse wings he collected from hunters in the Gunnison River Basin in 1977. "They were remarkably different. They were miniatures" compared to those of other greater sage grouse, says Braun, at that time the director of bird research for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Over the next two decades, other variations came to light. The grouse around Gunnison and western Colorado had distinct behavior, genetics, habitat and mating calls. By 1995, scientists had come to a conclusion that was both exciting and alarming: The Gunnison sage grouse was a unique species and, with only 3,500 or so left, it was on the brink of disappearing completely.

Braun, other biologists and environmentalists saw the Endangered Species Act as the "best opportunity for the Gunnison sage grouse to be around 50 years from now," he says. But this April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to list the bird. The agency based its decision on a recent population analysis that indicates that the grouse is faring well without protection. Braun and others believe that the analysis is flawed, however. The decision may doom some communities of the grouse, they say, and the very survival of the bird is at stake.

"My question is: How is this (decision) going to benefit the Gunnison sage grouse?" says Braun, who retired in 1999 after 30 years with the state. "It’s devastating."

A small but stable population

The Gunnison sage grouse once ranged across 13.7 million acres in the Southwest. But as sagebrush plains gave way to irrigated pastures beginning in the late 1800s, the grouse lost most of its habitat. Now, over 90 percent of the Gunnison sage grouse’s original range is gone, and the remaining birds inhabit a few sagebrush islands in southwestern Colorado and a sliver of Utah. The largest population — about 2,400 birds — is in the Gunnison Basin. A half-dozen other tiny communities, each with 500 or fewer birds, hold on tenuously in areas further west in Colorado.

Once biologists determined that the Gunnison grouse was its own species, the effort to save the bird began. Motivated in part by a desire to avoid the restrictions of an endangered species listing, volunteer working groups formed, bringing together ranchers, county officials, environmentalists and state and federal biologists and land managers. They seeded native grasses and vegetation to create food and habitat for the birds. By 2000, when the American Ornithological Union officially recognized the Gunnison sage grouse as a distinct species, voluntary efforts were in place for every population (HCN, 3/13/00: A scarce bird tests the new rule). Meanwhile, the Colorado Division of Wildlife created the Gunnison Sage Grouse Rangeland Conservation Plan, which halted hunting and secured conservation easements on 41,000 acres of private land to protect occupied grouse habitat.

The recent population analysis by the Fish and Wildlife Service seems to validate these efforts: Grouse numbers have held stable for the last 50 years, according to the statistical model. Based on that, the agency decided against listing the bird, which is a "recognition that the sage grouse is not threatened with extinction, and their numbers are rising," says Kent Holsinger, a Denver attorney who represents a coalition that opposes ESA listing for the bird.

Many threats

There’s general agreement that the grouse’s population has held fairly steady during the past decade, hovering between 3,000 and 5,000 birds. But those numbers reveal only a small slice of the bigger picture, critics say. They argue that the government analysis did not properly account for the drastic loss of the grouse’s range, raising questions about its assertion that the population has been stable for a half-century. Prior to the recognition that the Gunnison grouse was a separate species, the counts were less methodical and intense, and thus had distorted results, says Braun.

While Braun concedes that the Gunnison Basin population is relatively stable, the small numbers and isolation of the other communities make them vulnerable to threats ranging from West Nile virus to development.

"With this decision, the Service is saying it’s OK to lose the sage grouse outside of the (Gunnison) basin," says Erin Robertson of the Center for Native Ecosystems, the environmental group that sued to force the ruling. Robertson and Braun believe that only the added protections of ESA listing can save the smaller communities.

If the grouse had been listed, the Bureau of Land Management would have halted oil and gas drilling in vacant potential habitat near the smaller populations, Robertson says. Instead, the agency, which has suspended drilling only in occupied habitat, can continue to lease potential recovery zones.

Inside the Gunnison Basin, the working group will continue its work to save existing grouse habitat and create new habitat. But Sue Navy, a member of the working group and of the grassroots High Country Citizens Alliance, says that may not be enough for the long-term survival of the bird. A 2002 self-evaluation by the working group found that two-thirds of its stated actions needed greater effort for success. The members also figured the group completed only 9 percent of its objectives, and made minimal or no progress on 25 percent. Navy believes the endangered species listing would have led to more funds and motivation for land-use regulations to protect and improve grouse habitat.

The range-wide conservation plan will stay in place, says Gary Skiba of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and the state still hopes to partner with landowners on voluntary conservation contracts. "We’re not reducing our efforts at all based on the decision," says Skiba, who adds that listing would actually make some management — like relocating birds between populations — more difficult.

"There’s so much effort going into keeping the bird from getting the protection it needs," responds Navy. "The (Gunnison) sage grouse doesn’t have that many more years to wait while we figure out what to do."

The author writes from Fort Collins, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...