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.

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