A big flap over a small bird

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Dove Creek, Colo. — The possibility that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may list the possibly-doomed Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species drew sharp criticism from residents of this rural Dolores County community during a presentation Jan.31.

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A crowd of about a hundred expressed near-unanimous disdain for additional federal action to protect the ground-dwelling bird, which many ranchers and farmers have worked to preserve on their own. Recent efforts by residents and local land agencies to help the grouse are in stark contrast to earlier times when the bird was regularly hunted, and even dined on.

They didn’t ever cook up very well,” said resident Rick Deremo, recalling family stories when the Gunnison grouse was briefly on the menu.

“The problem is they don’t thrive here because of the predators; they are so easily preyed upon.”

“They ate up the crops, they were a nuisance,” added an old timer listening in.

The Gunnison sage grouse is suffering population declines in six of its seven remaining locations, which are scattered through western and southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Now this distinct grouse species may see additional reprieve from the hazards of development if the federal government decides to step in with more targeted recovery plans. As far as dinner-table threats, those days are most likely over.

If the bird is listed as endangered or threatened, the enforcement powers of the Endangered Species Act require direct action by land managers and consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring the bird back from the brink of extinction. Penalties for killing or harassing the bird would be put in place on and off public lands, although “take” permits could be issued in certain instances.

And any federal projects or plans that have a federal-funding “nexus” within critical Gunnison sage-grouse habitat would be more intensely reviewed, and could be altered, or denied.

If the species’ population and habitat is stabilized, it would be removed from the list.

Hanging on

In the past, the bird is believed to have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but today that number has been reduced to some 4,600 birds, explained Patty Gelatt, a USFWS supervisor for western Colorado. The survivors live in seven locations totaling 1 million acres in western Colorado and eastern Utah. The majority of the birds live in the Gunnison Basin and have a stable population there, due in part to significant local efforts.

“But the six satellite populations have been in decline in the past 12 years,” Gelatt said, including the Dove Creek/Monticello, Piñon Ridge (Grand Junction), San Miguel, Cimarron-Sims Mesa, Crawford, and Poncha Pass populations.

In 2001, there were an estimated 350 birds in the Dove Creek/Monticello region. That dropped to 162 birds in 2007, and declined again to 147 birds in 2012.

The sensitive birds require large blocks of uninterrupted sage-brush wildlands and some wetlands for survival, food and shelter. But increased development and poor range management has reduced that habitat, according to the Jan. 31 presentation.

“We determined that the major threat to the Gunnison sage grouse was the ongoing and future habitat loss due to fragmentation from human infrastructure – buildings, roads, power lines, things like that,” Gelatt said.

Improper grazing management, predation, climate change, lack of regulations to prevent habitat fragmentation, and lack of genetic variety are also behind the bird’s demise, she explained. Fires and the infiltration of invasive weeds like cheatgrass afterwards are a threat to sage habitat, as well as drought.

Tough neighborhood

Whether this unassuming, medium-sized bird with its charming, chest-puffing courtship dance can peacefully co-exist with hardscrabble human endeavors that shape this arid landscape for farming, ranching, mining, and oil and gas extraction remains to be seen.

If the bird is listed, oil and gas production, road-building, federal projects, and development on public lands would face more regulations or restrictions in order to save the grouse’s critical habitat from too much human disturbance.

The USFS also admitted – to near-howls of protest from the staunch “Don’t Tread on Me” folks in the crowd – that the listing could limit agricultural actions, subdivisions and development even on private land. A pressure-cooker of dissent, at times provoking disruptive shout-outs, greeted the federal wildlife officials.

“We have had complaints that we never have these sage-grouse meetings in Dove Creek, so we decided to come down here and explain this proposal for listing as an endangered species,” Gelatt said. “We are interested in your comments, and want to know if there are errors in our science.”

Critical habitat

A key component of any species being included on the endangered-species list is establishing the critical habitat required for it to rebound. But how much and where the habitat is designated can prove highly controversial, especially when it includes private land.

For the Dove Creek/Monticello sagegrouse population, the USFW is proposing 348,353 acres for critical habitat. The large, open landscape is a mix of private, county, and federal BLM lands stretching north and south of Dove Creek and west to Monticello, Utah.

However, not all of the proposed critical habitat has known populations of Gunnison sage grouse. Only 111,945 acres are officially known to be occupied by the bird, and they encompass four areas: Two are north and west of Dove Creek, a large swath is located east and north of Monticello, and a small section is south of Monticello.

So why are unoccupied areas included in the critical-habitat area?

The reason, wildlife officials explained, is to allow the bird to safely expand into new territory and mix with nearby populations in San Miguel County, Colo., and elsewhere to increase genetic diversity.

“The birds need areas to expand into because the existing habitat is inadequate,” Gelatt said. “There is a lot of private land with important Gunnison sage-grouse habitat.”

BLM ranching leases also fall into the proposed critical habitat and could result in new stipulations, wildlife officials said. New leases may require avoiding certain areas during breeding seasons and while chicks are being raised.

Private land affected

The proposed critical habitat includes private property with farms, ranches and land put into the Conservation Reserve Program. But Gelatt said the agency does not “anticipate a lot of impact on private land” as a result of an endangered listing, although there was disagreement about that potential among the crowd.

“Critical habitat does not create a preserve, it does not create a hands-off area. It does not take private property, and it only applies, or comes into play, if there is a federal action,” Gelatt said.

“Grazing will continue on federal land, grazing will continue on private land, agricultural practices will continue on private land.” Examples of “federal actions” on private land that may require more allowances for the sage grouse include federal permits to alter wetlands, airport expansions, new highways, or agricultural programs that have a federal funding component.

Gelatt explained that whether a project is on private, county, or public land, the goal is to not jeopardize the grouse population or recovery efforts.

“It is another layer of analysis, but it does not necessarily mean that projects are stopped or don’t go forward, it just means those projects need to consider the Gunnison sage grouse in their project plan,” she said.

Private land is more impacted by the listing itself than the critical-habitat designation, she said. Once a species is listed it is protected from being killed, harassed or harmed on public and private land.

Farming and ranching are compatible with the Gunnison sage grouse and in fact the birds have adapted to agricultural practices, USFWS officials said. But in certain scenarios, where private property falls within critical habitat, development such as residential subdivisions could be curtailed.

Responding to a question about what would happen if a farm in the critical habitat had a population of birds, USFWS biologist Charlie Sharp responded that “there might be restrictions on what you could do on that land.”

The rural, conservative community cringed at potential federal meddling on private lands.

“If you decide the bird is endangered, and I mow a pasture with sagebrush habitat for weed control, what will you do? Remember this is private land we’re talking about,” asked Raymond Boyd, a local landowner.

Sharp responded that “it is up to you to come to us if birds are on your property. It’s your choice. We don’t have black helicopters flying around checking.” Impacts on CRP

The Conservation Reserve Program allows landowners to voluntarily put property aside for habitat and open-space management in exchange for payments. But a concern for property owners with land under CRP is whether it constitutes a federal action because the system is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a federal program.

Gelatt said if the bird is listed, the agency “will work to make sure that CRP is an attractive option, and to come up with a mechanism so there is no penalty if you choose to leave CRP.”

Confusion and suspicion about the extent to which a listing will affect private lands was repeatedly expressed at the meeting. “You say it won’t impact private lands, but then say it could, and you want us to believe you?” asked Richard Redshaw, a Dolores County landowner.

Oil and gas

The listing of the Gunnison sage grouse would likely have an impact on future oil and gas leases in the critical-habitat zone, something that does not sit well with local officials.

“The critical habitat they are proposing covers one-third of our county, and within that one-third is our oil and gas production,” said Dolores County Commissioner Ernie Williams in an interview after the presentation.

“Listing [as endangered] would negatively affect our economy because 60 percent of our revenues come from oil and gas.”

He said predation – not oil and gas production – threatens the bird, and gave more credit to local residents’ conservation efforts for the bird than the feds’ attempts.

“I want to say that most of the farmers here have worked to preserve these birds; they have put land in CRP and sold tracts of land to the Division of Wildlife,” Williams said.

“We feel that wildlife officials have not done 100 percent of their part to protect the birds. Even on federal land the predation is so high that the birds don’t stand a chance, so I don’t see how they can manage it successfully in areas where the rest of us live. We thought we had a handle on this problem.”

Susan Linner, a Colorado field supervisor for the USFWS, told the Free Press a listing could indeed affect oil and gas production.

“This would not affect existing wells or infrastructure and it will not stop oil and gas drilling, but there could be some situations where an individual well could be denied,” she said.

The goal would be to manage oil and gas drilling so that more wells are concentrated on one pad, there are fewer access roads, and more drilling is done on existing footprints where the land has already been disturbed. “It will probably affect new leasing decisions, and drilling of new wells . . . like for example if [a company] wants to move into an area of unbroken sagebrush habitat,” Linner said. “Just putting one or two wells in an area like that can change the behavior of the birds. They are very sensitive to roads.”

Environmental lawsuits

The consistent drop in population numbers, and what were seen as inadequate efforts to improve the situation, led to the decision to consider listing the bird, Linner said. More regulations to prevent habitat fragmentation would have helped stabilize the population, but time ran out.

“Back in 2006 we made a decision not to move forward with a possible listing, and we continued to monitor the bird,” Linner explained. “But since then we have continued to see population declines, which is why we are back now saying that the threats are high enough to consider listing the species.”

Lawsuits by environmental groups also triggered the proposed listing.

In 2010, the USFWS entered into a settlement with Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity to evaluate 250 species listed as candidates for endangered status.

“The agreement we made was that we would evaluate each species over a time period of 6-7 years and make a final determination,” Linner said. “The Gunnison sage grouse was pretty high on the list as far as threat factors.”

Linner praised local efforts to try and prevent the listing, but said more is needed to save the bird from extinction.

“I know that people are concerned, and this is a new thing for private landowners in this area. If every population had been conserved to the point of the Gunnison Basin, we might have made a different decision.”

Public comments on the listing and critiical-habitat proposals will be taken through March 12. To comment electronically go to http://www.regulations.gov. In the keyword box, enter Docket No. FWSR6- ES-2011-0111. Or submit a comment by hard copy. Submit by mail to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: 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.

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From February 2013.