Seeking to stave off an endangered listing for the sage grouse

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Still hoping to stave off an endangered-species listing for the Gunnison sage grouse, the Montezuma and Dolores County commissioners have signed a memorandum of understanding with eight other counties saying they will work together to improve the bird’s viability.

“The Parties, individually and collectively, intend to ensure that reasonable and adequate work is being conducted, and shall continued to be conducted, to reach the goal of increasing the current abundance, viability and vitality of Gunnison Sage-grouse and their habitat,” the MOU states. “The purpose of this MOU is to identify measures and strategies to achieve this goal. This will be accomplished by sharing data, strategies, plans and tools, engaging in dialogue, providing among the Parties and to others recommendations and critique and fostering a rangewide perspective on Gunnison Sagegrouse and their habitat.”

The MOU does not commit any of the counties to spending funds or doing anything specific about the grouse.

James Dietrich, Montezuma County’s federal-lands coordinator, said the commissioners have not talked yet about specific actions they might take to aid the grouse. “The whole range of tools is on the table,” he said. “We’re still working with all these counties to see what works best for the particular area.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Endangered Species Act, has proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered. The population of the grouse, a smaller species separate and distinct from the greater sage grouse, has dwindled to about 4,500 birds total, some 4,000 of those in the Gunnison Basin, the remainder in a half-dozen satellite populations scattered around Southwest Colorado and Southeast Utah.

A public-comment period on the proposed listing and the designation of about 100,000 acres of critical habitat for the bird ended April 2.

Concern over the effects the listing might have on grazing, energy development, and other activities on both private and public land has prompted angry and indignant letters in local newspapers. Meetings to discuss the proposed listing have been packed.

On March 13, a number of officials from area counties met in Dove Creek, Colo., to talk over strategies for possibly precluding the listing. The meeting was organized by John Whitney, an aide to Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.

“I work in nine counties and I see a lot of counties really struggling with this issue,” Whitney said. “There is a lot of sentiment and concern that it would be better if we could keep this species off the endangered list. . . .

“We’re all pretty clear, the stakes are pretty high here.”

He added that the announcement of the proposed listing “felt like a kick in the gut. I think everyone felt that.”

Seeking a win-win

One of the main thrusts of the meeting was learning from representatives of Gunnison County how they have managed to keep their sage-grouse population stable. The Gunnison Basin birds are the only population that is not in decline.

Gunnison County officials said one key factor was the development in 2005 of a Gunnison Sage-Grouse Strategic Committee made up of 13 representatives of key agencies and interests. The committee, which is appointed by the county commissioners and receives some county administrative support, works with landowners to help ensure that their activities don’t harm the birds.

Asked how such a committee was better than Fish and Wildlife overseeing activities, the Gunnison County representatives said it’s always better to deal with locals than federal officials.

“We had our largest landowners, who generally don’t like any regulation, coming to us saying, ‘Help us [avoid a listing]’,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Paula Swenson. “They said, ‘We would rather be dealing with you than the federal government any day.”

“We weren’t happy about it,” said Greg Peterson of the Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association and a member of the strategic committee. “We didn’t celebrate having to do this.”

However, he said, ranchers were tired of grazing being the focal point of concern about activities that might harm grouse, and felt it would be good to have some level of local regulation.

The committee’s No. 1 goal is conservation of sage grouse and precluding the need to list them, Swenson said. The committee works with people who live near grouse.

For example, in a subdivision with a sizable population of grouse, some people with an active lek (a site where male birds strut during mating season) on their land wanted to build a home. A biologist examined where the lek was in association with the house. He suggested they put up some berms, change their lighting so it didn’t shine on the lek, and move their driveway.

“So just some tweaking made it better for the bird, and they were able to build their dream home,” Swenson said.

Peterson said the committee doesn’t tell people they can’t do something, “but if we can find a win-win situation where both sets of needs can be accomplished,” it’s a benefit.

“In my mind [having the strategic committee] gives you more credibility dealing with this listing and saying it’s not warranted,” he said.

Swenson said energy development in their county is generally not in the sage-grouse areas and has not been much affected.

In the spring some public roads are closed during lekking activities. “Private landowners can still go in, but from March 5th through May 15th the roads are shut down,” Swenson said. “The first year it was bad. We had a lot of bolt-cutters out there cutting chains and bolts, but over time” people accepted the need for the closures.

New predators

Jim Cochran, Gunnison County’s wildlife conservation coordinator, said the road closures are among some substantive things the strategic committee has accomplished that help the grouse to survive.

In 2006 Gunnison County adopted landuse regulations for activities on private land that sunsetted in one year, in order to see what they would accomplish and how they would be administered.

After a year, Cochran said, the county adopted permanent regulations. “The rooms [at public hearings] were not nearly as full this time because landowners had seen how they would be enforced.”

Cochran said Gunnison County doesn’t regulate agriculture because “it’s a well-managed industry that benefits the grouse.”

The county has found ways to minimize impacts to sage grouse, and their population is stable to increasing, he said, yet development has been able to continue.

Talk about saving sage grouse inevitably leads to calls for ramping up predator control, something many locals see as one possible silver lining to concern over the grounddwelling birds.

Dolores County Commissioner Ernie Williams said in Wyoming, “the government flew [airplanes] for coyotes every day and grouse did OK.”

Peterson responded that predator control is a thorny issue because “in our area, there may be a public outcry if we start to shoot fox and coyotes and birds and everything like that.”

He added, “The level of science we were being told we would have to get to show that predator control was being effective – it’s a high bar.”

Cochran said although there is evidence predators are affecting Gunnison sage grouse, the relationship between predator and prey “gets messy quickly.”

Today there are introduced predators for which the grouse didn’t evolve defenses, such as red fox, plus “subsidized” predators like ravens, which have proliferated because of man’s activities. Cochran said a Christmas bird count in Gunnison County in 1953 found only one raven – this year over 400 were counted just around the landfill.

Ravens are extremely smart, he said, and prey on grouse eggs and chicks.

‘Time is short’

Whitney said another tool is candidate conservation agreements with assurances, known as CCAAs. These are agreements that a landowner enters into with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. A CPW biologist visits the property to see if the owner is doing a good job protecting sage grouse, and if so, Whitney said, “this can serve as a safe-harbor agreement so if the species is listed the landowner has protection from the Fish and Wildlife Service coming in and saying, ‘We’re going to change how you’re operating on your land’.”

Chris Kloster of CPW warned that CCAAs aren’t a “get-out-of-jail-free card” and won’t fit every landowner, but can work well. “I don’t understand why a landowner wouldn’t sign up for one,” he said.

Whitney said many people wonder why Fish and Wildlife is talking about listing the bird when the Gunnison Basin population is growing. He has been told that biologists are concerned that the satellite populations are all declining; some have dwindled by half since 2001. “We have to find a way to be able to replicate some of what Gunnison has done, but time is short,” he said.

The group agreed that it was worthwhile to try to persuade the agency to drop or delay the proposed listing rather than simply planning to fight it in court.

Whitney said he had asked the Congressional Research Office to find instances in which someone had successfully litigated a listing, but they couldn’t find one. “I think people should be clear that the legal precedent is not encouraging,” Whitney said.

David Baumgarten, attorney for Gunnison County, agreed. “We can take it there and we can give it a walloping good fight but I can’t guarantee we will win.”

However, Baumgarten said, if the agency can be persuaded that new local action is being taken to help the birds, it might possibly hold off on the listing. “We’re going to feel the effects locally so we need to do something locally,” Baumgarten said. “If we don’t do something, shame on us.”

Whitney agreed, adding that he believes the agency’s decision is not set in stone but it needs to be able to see new things happening on the ground. He said Colorado’s senators and Third District Rep. Scott Tipton are on board to help in any way they can.

“We have a fighting chance,” he said.

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