Listing proposal for Gunnison sage grouse called "disappointing'

News
Jan 18, 2013

Another member of the sage grouse family has been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This time it is the Gunnison sage grouse which has garnered federal attention… to the tune of millions of acres of critical habitat.

Friday, Jan. 11, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) submitted a proposal to list the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered under the ESA. Along with this listing proposal comes an astounding 1.7 million acres in western Colorado and the eastern edge of Utah proposed as critical habitat for the bird. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) called the proposal a disappointment considering all the effort that has gone on privately and publically to protect the bird and conserve its habitat in recent years.

“The magnitude of the listing, coupled with the designation of critical habitat, is as if ranchers, local, state, and national government and the conservation community had not done anything to conserve the species and habitat prior to the listing,” read the CCA official release regarding the proposal.

CCA Executive Vice President Terry Fankhauser, in talking with WLJ, spoke at length of the efforts of Colorado cattlemen to conserve habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse.

Since roughly mid-2005, Colorado cattlemen and landowners have had the option to participate in the Colorado Division of Wildlife Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) program, a voluntary conservation program. And this is an option they have been utilizing quite readily over the years.

“There’s been a fair number of conservation easements that have been done specifically to protect the bird,” Fankhauser said. “Land owners have made improvements through [the Natural Resource Conservation Service] or otherwise with state assistance to prevent fragmentation of habitat and to adjust their grazing practices to not affect the bird.”

Fankhauser also described the actions a number of affected counties have implemented, such as specific planning measures for the Gunnisons to ensure proposed building and development won’t negatively impact the grouse’s habitat. This, of course, has had impacts on those counties’ real estate.

“If you factor in all the man hours, the effort and the legal costs, it’s literally millions of dollars and thousands of man hours,” said Fankhauser, of the conservation efforts which have been made over the last few years. He said a lot of the motivation to participate in the CCAA was to prevent total listing of the Gunnison sage grouse, as it has long been expected it would get some sort of official listing attention. Despite this expectation, however, FWS’ proposal to list it was something of a slap in the face.

“It’s like we would have gotten the exact same decision if we hadn’t have done any of that,” Fankhauser said of the conservation efforts of Colorado cattlemen, with a tone of disappointment.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t only ranching interests which recognized the value of the conservation efforts of ranching groups. In its official statement on the FWS proposal, the Center for Biological Diversity had this to say:

“Local groups made up of ranchers, developers, recreationists, land managers and conservationists have worked together and taken important steps toward conserving the sage grouse by protecting and restoring habitat.”

Unsurprisingly, however, the group was also ready to blame “poorly managed grazing” as one of the leading threats to the Gunnison sage grouse. But they did say the potential of official federal listing of the bird would help expand and better fund local efforts.

“The Gunnison sage grouse might finally get the protection it deserves,” said Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, of the potential listing. “Federal listing will buttress efforts to conserve the species.”

FWS officials also took note of the efforts of local groups in their statement about the proposal and praised those involved.

“We applaud the combined efforts of our many agency and local partners, as well as private landowners across the species’ range, for their efforts to address the significant challenges faced by the Gunnison sage grouse,” said Noreen Walsh, regional director of the service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.

“In particular, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has worked diligently to conserve habitat through easements and conservation agreements with landowners.

Continuation of these efforts will be essential for the recovery of the species, and we look forward to receiving additional scientific and technical information about the species from our partners and the public before making a final decision.”

FWS officials congratulated local private and industry conservation efforts for the Gunnison sage grouse, noting that the largest population has remained relatively stable for the past 12 years due to their good work. The smaller populations, which are more heavily fragmented, are of greater concern.

The statement specifically pointed out several times that this is only a proposal and not a final decision. The proposal is open to public comment until mid-March. More information and details regarding public comments can be found below.

Proposal details

The proposed listing of the Gunnison sage grouse requires FWS to also designate a critical habitat range. The critical habitat designation proposal is very large at 1,704,227 acres in Chaffee, Delta, Dolores, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray, Saguache and San Miguel counties in Colorado; and in Grand and San Juan counties in Utah.

According to FWS information, occupied Gunnison habitat is now at 7-10 percent of its historical range.

There are an estimated 5,000 breeding birds in the proposed designated area.

The largest threat to the Gunnison sage grouse has been the loss, degradation and fragmentation of its habitats which allows for individuals to be more vulnerable to predation and populations to become more segmented and genetically isolated. Most of the habitat fragmentation is attributed to “residential, exurban, and commercial development and associated infrastructure such as roads and power lines” in the official Federal Register.

According to official documentation, if the listing is finalized, a full analysis of economic impact—including the impact on jobs—will be conducted regarding any potential critical habitat designation. FWS also says it “will strive, to the extent permitted by law, to avoid unnecessary burdens and costs on states, tribes, localities, and the private sector.”

Fankhauser, however, is concerned about a future which includes full listing and such a huge habitat designation.

“You can’t get more stringent in the proposal than that,” he said.

“Everything that is a federally permitted activity will be tempered. We will see impacts to grazing on BLM land in terms of duration, carry capacity, and so on. We will see impacts to oil and gas activities. And our landowners have a stake in that.”

Fankhauser also worried about what full listing of the Gunnison sage grouse would mean for conservation efforts.

“At a fully endangered listing it takes the state out of the management strategy,” he said, concerned. He spoke at length of the effectiveness of the Colorado Habitat Exchange, a program which incentivizes voluntary conservation activities by private landowners and industry stakeholders. Colorado has thus far seen good results with the outcome-focused program for several species.

The dunes sagebrush lizard is seen as a success story in the annals of voluntary, incentivized conservation programs. The lizard narrowly escaped listing in several southwestern states after private and industry interests mobilized to protect it. Fankhauser mentioned the lizard in talking about the success of the Colorado program.

Public comment

Readers are reminded this is just a proposal of listing and critical habitat designation, not a final decision.

Both the listing proposal and the habitat designation are open to public comment until March 12. CCA is urging all cattlemen and landowners in the affected areas to submit comments.

Though all comments are welcome, FWS is specifically seeking science-based comments which may contain evidence or documentation regarding Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat they may not have encountered or included in their proposal. In their own words:

“We intend that any final action resulting from this proposed rule will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and be as accurate and as effective as possible. Therefore, we request comments or information from the public, other concerned governmental agencies, Native American tribes, the scientific community, industry, or any other interested parties concerning this proposed rule.

“We particularly seek comments concerning: …(5) Any information on the biological or ecological requirements of the species and ongoing conservation measures for the species and its habitat.”

Relevant documents can be accessed for review by the public online at the FWS’ Gunnison sage grouse page at fws.gov/mountain-prairie/ species/birds/gunnisonsage grouse/. Physical reviews of the documents can also be arranged by calling the FWS’ Mountain-Prairie office at 303/236-7905.

Comments can be submitted either electronically or by hard copy. Electronic comments can be sent online at regulations.gov after searching for “Gunnison sage grouse” and clicking the “open” box in the Comment Period box on the left of the page. Physical comments can be sent to Public Comments Processing, Attn: F FWS–R6–ES–2011–0111; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042– PDM; Arlington, VA 22203 and must be received on or before March 12.

Readers seeking to submit comments are advised that any submissions to regulations.gov—including any personal identifying information—will be posted on the website in full. If submitting comments via hardcopy, you may request at the top of your document that this information be withheld from public posting, but that cannot be guaranteed. Hardcopy submissions will also be posted on regulations.gov. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

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