Sage-grouse fight continues

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Western agricultural and development interests are firing back at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its listing of the Gunnison sage grouse as a federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

In December, they got major support from Congress, which passed an omnibus spending bill that includes a rider banning federal funding to implement the listing on the ground. It also bans funding for a possible listing of the greater sage grouse.

The bill states:

“None of the funds made available by this or any other Act may be used by the Secretary of the Interior to write or issue pursuant to Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973:

  • A proposed rule for greater sage-grouse;
  • A proposed rule for the Columbia basin distinct population segment of greater sage grouse;
  • A final rule for the bi-state distinct population segment of greater sage-grouse; or
  • A final rule for Gunnison sage-grouse.”

The Gunnison sage grouse is a small, ground-dwelling bird that numbers about 4,000, most of them in Gunnison County, Colo. A half-dozen other very small populations are scattered around Southwest Colorado and Southeast Utah, including Dolores and San Miguel counties in Colorado and San Juan County in Utah.

The greater sage grouse, the largest grouse in North America, has a much larger population that exists across portions of 11 states. However, its numbers are shrinking.

Both species of grouse are known for the flamboyant, bobbing displays the males make in spring, jigging up and down and burbling while displaying large colorful sacs on their breast.

Both species depend on large, unbroken tracts of sagebrush to survive. Threats to their existence include the conversion of sagebrush habitat to subdivisions, agriculture, or oil and gas-drilling; predation by raptors, ravens, domestic dogs and cats, and more; drought; the encroachment of nonnative grasses such as cheatgrass; and wildfires.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which implements the Endangered Species Act, determined that the greater sage grouse was “warranted” for listing under the ESA but that such an action was precluded by higher-priority listings. As part of a 2011 court settlement, the service agreed to make an initial determination by September 2015 on whether to propose the species for listing.

Although the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations Bill prevents the service from publishing a proposed listing rule for sage grouse, the agency is still obligated to determine whether the greater sage grouse warrants protection under the ESA, according to information on the service’s web site. Therefore, the service is proceeding to collect data and conduct an analysis in order to reach a decision.

Ranchers and representatives of oil and gas companies are especially nervous about how the listings of either bird would affect their operations. The listings could put hurdles in the form of mitigation requirements, permits, and paperwork in the way of grazing, energy extraction, and other projects proposed on critical habitat for the species.

The decision to eliminate funding for sage-grouse listings was decried by environmental and conservation groups, such as the Western Watersheds Project, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy.

“These are shocking actions that shamelessly circumvent science-driven wildlife protection laws,” said Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor of American Bird Conservancy, in a press release. “This seems to be a case of ‘when the going gets tough’ to conserve threatened birds, just bend the law to suit.”

But agricultural groups including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council hailed the legislation.

“Listing the sage grouse would take the most successful natural-resource stewards, ranchers, off the land,” the beef association said in a release.

“The passage by both the House and Senate is a clear message that Congress supports our industry and is willing to put a stop the overzealous Administration and their attempt to take production agriculture off the land.”

Meanwhile, the state of Colorado and others have filed notice of intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service over the Gunnison sage grouse listing.

In a letter dated Dec. 12 and signed by Lisa A. Reynolds, assistant attorney general for Colorado, the state said that the Fish and Wildlife Service “improperly analyzed the required factors to make its determination that the Gunnison sage-grouse is threatened; failed to rely on the best available science; and failed to give adequate weight to the extensive conservation efforts undertaken by state and local governments and private landowners.” So far, the state has spent close to $40 million on “voluntary conservation programs, land acquisition, research, monitoring activities, habitat treatments, translocation, and predator control programs” to try to conserve the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat, the notice stated.

Roughly three-quarters of habitat occupied by the grouse already has some level of protection, the notice stated, and “Colorado has been a leader in Gunnison sage-grouse research and conservation efforts throughout the species’ range.”

The letter stated that the decision to list the grouse as threatened violated the ESA because the agency had failed to properly analyze five factors it is required to analyze when it makes a listing, the state charged, and as a result it “overestimated the degree of threat to the vast majority of the Gunnison sage-grouse population, which is located in the Gunnison basin.”

Conservation groups had sued the service after it decided in 2006 that the Gunnison sage grouse did not qualify for endangeredspecies protection, and in 2010 the agency decided it was warranted for listing but precluded by other higher-priority listings. At that time it became a “candidate” species. A court decision regarding such candidate species forced the agency to reconsider its decision and it proposed listing the bird as endangered, but later scaled that back to threatened.

Gunnison County filed a notice of intent to sue on Dec. 22, and many of the remaining 11 counties affected by the listing, including Dolores County, are considering joining in.

No critical habitat for the bird was designated in Montezuma County, but the commissioners did pass an ordinance banning “non-native” endangered or threatened species from being brought to the county

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