Non-native bird ruffles feathers

  • Does Colorado need this bird?

    Jim Rathert, Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Conservationists clipped the wings of a controversial plan to introduce a non-native game bird into southwestern Colorado.

Although the state Division of Wildlife hoped to release 40 ruffed grouse in the San Juan-Rio Grande National Forest in April, four environmental groups and two individuals sued the Forest Service to stop the transplant. The day after the suit was filed, Forest Supervisor James Webb yanked approval for the release.

Brett Gosney, of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the birds might move into nearby wilderness areas and "could have been a disaster biologically." In the lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Denver March 27, environmentalists said the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not studying the possible impacts of bringing in the birds, which are popular with hunters. The male bird is known for its crescendo of wing beats called "drumming" that occurs during the spring mating season.

Gosney charged that the Ruffed Grouse Society, a 28,000-member group headquartered in Coraopolis, Pa., bird-dogged the state Wildlife Commission, appointed by the governor, into approving the transplant.

"This affluent Eastern group of bird hunters is dictating public-land policy in the West. That's ugly," Gosney said.

Mike Wynn, president of the society's Colorado chapter, said he took umbrage at the charge: "I live in Colorado; I don't live in Pennsylvania."

Why did the Wildlife Commission push for bringing an exotic bird onto a national forest? Commission chairman Arnold Salazar said, "We're trying to create as much diversity in our wildlife as possible and as much hunting opportunity for our constituents."

Internal documents from both the state wildlife commission and Forest Service show that the issue has been debated since the early 1970s, with opinions changing through the decades. Then in 1993, the Forest Service's regional office in Denver concluded that bringing in the birds would not adversely affect the environment or violate agency policies, because it was a state action.

On the ground, however, staffers at the San Juan National Forest questioned the project. Some argued that spending wildlife dollars on "ruffies" while native grouse, such as the sharptailed, declined, misused scarce funds. Bringing in the grouse in two transplants would have cost about $25,000.

Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Webb is not a fan of the state's plan. "Bringing in ruffed grouse is kind of silly," he said. "It's about as low on the priority list as anything I've ever seen."

Mark Pearson, a Sierra Club staffer in Durango, said, "It would be nice if the Forest Service acquired the backbone to stand up to state wildlife agencies and do what's right from an ecosystem point of view. They could have made a case like we did."

State wildlife commissioners say they still have every intention of transplanting ruffed grouse to the national forest; their next release date is Aug. 15.

David Hatcher writes in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the lawsuit, contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife, 303/297-1192, San Juan Forest Supervisor Jim Webb, 719/852-5941, or Brett Gosney of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, 970/382-1383.

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