FWS lists Gunnison sage grouse as a threatened species

The US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Gunnison sage grouse—a ground-dwelling bird found only in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah—as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Government officials in both states and oil and gas producers called the action unnecessary while environmental organizations said it did not go far enough.

FWS said it originally proposed listing the bird as endangered in January 2013. Efforts by both states’ governments, Indian tribes, oil and gas producers, private landowners, and other stakeholders helped reduced threats enough to give the bird the more flexibly protected threatened designation, it indicated.

The US Department of the Interior agency said efforts to work with plaintiffs in a legal settlement to extend the deadline and allow counties and states more time to develop conservation commitments were unsuccessful, making the Nov. 12 listing and designation of 1.4 million acres of critical habitat necessary for the species’ recovery and survival.

“While many people hoped that the extraordinary conservation efforts by our partners in Colorado and Utah would resolve all the threats faced by the Gunnison sage grouse, the best available science indicates that the species still requires the [ESA’s] protection,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said.

“This is a work in progress, however, and we will continue to join our partners in protecting and restoring the rangelands with the hope that, in the near future, the Gunnison sage grouse will no longer need additional protection,” he said.

Plans 4(d) rule

Designating the bird as threatened instead of endangered gives FWS the flexibility to tailor protective conservation measures through a special 4(d) rule, which it intends to propose in early 2015 to allow more ranchers, farmers, and other landowners who commit to Gunnison sage grouse conservation to continue managing their lands without additional restrictions.

Colorado Gov. John W. Hickenlooper (D) said he was disappointed with FWS’s decision. “This sends a discouraging message to communities willing to take significant actions to protect species and complicates our good faith efforts to work with local stakeholders on locally driven approaches,” he said on Nov. 12.

“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,” Hickenlooper said.

The state’s US senators, Democrats Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, also separately expressed their disappointment. US Rep. Scott Tipton (R), a member of the Natural Resources Committee, said he supported Hickenlooper’s decision to legally challenge the decision.

Rejects notion

Two US House Republicans from Utah, Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, also criticized FWS’s action. “This is yet another case of the federal government thinking it is smarter and more capable than the states and communities, a notion I flatly reject,” said Bishop, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee’s Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee.

Kathleen Sgamma, vice-president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance in Denver, also was critical. “Coupled with the Lesser Prairie Chicken, another example where sustained on-the-ground species protection was subverted by a listing decision, westerners are getting the message from the federal government that it’s not worth their time and effort to do the right thing since they’ll just be overridden,” she said.

“Today's announcement does not bode well for continued cooperation on other species like the greater sage grouse,” Sgamma told OGJ by e-mail.

Four environmental organizations, meanwhile, said FWS’s designating the bird as threatened was inadequate. “As a society, we love wide open landscapes, water, and wildlife. The decline of the Gunnison sage grouse is a symptom of our failure as a society to maintain the health of the Four Corners region,” said Shelley Silbert, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness in Durango, Colo.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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