Frustrations Aired As Gunnison Sage Grouse Is Listed Under Endangered Species Act
After years of consideration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Nov. 12 a decision to list the Gunnison sage grouse as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. The move could bring restrictions to oil and gas drilling and other land uses near the bird’s habitat in western Colorado and southeastern Utah.
In a conference call with reporters, FWS Director Dan Ashe praised efforts already taken in the Gunnison area to limit the species' decline. But he said the species is still at risk.
"We believe that the best science available points to a conclusion that the bird, while not facing eminent risk of extinction which would merit an endangered determination, but that it's still likely to face extinction in the future. Therefore a threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act is the proper and appropriate conclusion," he said.
The Gunnison sage grouse is related to the greater sage grouse, which is at the center of another debate over federal protection across 11 Western states – including Colorado. Two separate birds, two separate debates.
When it comes to oil and gas development, Director Ashe said it can be conducted in a way that's compatible to conservation. That requires in some instances "significant commitment" to avoid surface disturbances.
"So through directional drilling, the consolidation of facilities so that we avoid and minimize disturbance on the surface," he said. "[Oil and gas companies] have available technologies to avoid disturbances."
In January 2013, FWS had proposed to list the Gunnison sage grouse under the listing of "endangered." The Nov. 12 announced downgraded the listing to "threatened" — still a disappointment to local landowners, ranchers and others who had already taken voluntary efforts to limit the species' decline.
Both U.S Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, as well as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper voiced disappointment with the decision. In a press release, Gov. John Hickenlooper did not rule out legal action.
"In short, this is a major blow to voluntary conservation efforts and we will do everything we can, including taking the agency to court, to fight this listing and support impacted local governments, landowners and other stakeholders," the governor said in his release.
Terry Fankhauser with the Colorado Cattleman's Association said listing will hamper voluntary actions that ranchers will agree to in the future.
"...this is a major blow to voluntary conservation efforts and we will do everything we can, including taking the agency to court, to fight this listing ..."
"I can tell you with all the other species that we're dealing with that are up for listing in the next couple years this will chill landowners and local government extensively from wanting to engage in conservation action because they think it won't matter. That's a problem," said Fankhauser.
In 2013, 10 Western Colorado counties banded together to protect the Gunnison sage-grouse. The counties shared everything from data to planning efforts aimed at protecting the bird.
Luke Schafer of Conservation Colorado acknowledged the disappointment voiced by the state and local groups, but said the work done thus far has made a difference. He said FWS wants to see more of it.
"I have little doubt that the folks in Gunnison basin are extremely disappointed today," he said. "But there is plenty of silver lining in what might be dark clouds for folks. Some of that is that we have this foundation."
Schafer said conservation efforts — including a habitat prioritization tool — are making a difference in building the species' population.
"Instead of everyone walking away into their different corners and digging their boot heels in, this is the time that we have to come together if we want to be successful," he said. "I do think there's a universal desire to see the bird to de-listed. We can do that in relative short order if there's a broad-based collaboration."
In the coming year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will develop a special rule to allow ranchers, farmers and other landowners who commit to conservation efforts to continue to manage their lands without additional restrictions. The final rule will go into effect 30 days from when it’s published in the Federal Register.