On a rainy Thursday night in November, about 80 people filed into the auditorium at the Monticello (Utah) High School to give testimony regarding the plight of the Gunnison sage grouse.
It was the last of three public hearings on the proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act.
Nearly 40 people bellied up to the microphone as a court reporter transcribed every word they said and entered them into the public record.
Not one person spoke in favor of listing the bird, known for its elaborate and colorful mating dance during which it puffs out its chest with special air sacks.
State politicians, local politicians, mayors, ranchers and landowners said the plan to list the bird did not take local economics into account, nor does it give consideration to local efforts to preserve the bird.
Similarly, at the public meeting in Montrose, Colo., a day earlier on Nov. 20, there were just five people who spoke in favor of listing, including representatives of Wild Earth Guardians, Sheep Mountain Alliance and landowners. Approximately 20 other people spoke against the plan.
In Gunnison, approximately 24 people provided oral testimony, with none in favor of listing the bird.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has received thousands of written comments as well since it first proposed listing the bird as endangered late in 2012.
One written comment came from Clait Braun, an expert on the Gunnison sage grouse. In fact, Braun, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz., helped discover the bird as a separate species. In 1977, while working with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Braun deter mined that the grouse in the Southwest was different from the greater sage grouse. He closely monitored the population of the local grouse for over 30 years and watched as the numbers dwindled.
Braun, who runs a consulting firm named Grouse Inc., says it is imperative that the bird be listed, and has worked to get it listed since 1996.
“You have maybe 4,000 birds today,” he said. “The small populations have maybe two or three years left. The larger populations will be extinct in five years if nothing is done.”
Historically, the birds were abundant all across the sagebrush plains of the Southwest. The birds were present in Montezuma County and could be seen both north and south of Cortez, Braun said. However, the last time one was seen in Montezuma County was in 1996 near Hovenweep, he said. Land-use changes, habitat fragmentation and the removal of sagebrush are the biggest contributing factors to the bird’s disappearance, Braun said.
“When the populations get so low, they get into an extinction vortex and they can’t recover,” Braun said.
And the Gunnison sage grouse is entering that vortex, he added.
But many politicians are concerned that the 1.7 million acres set to be designated as critical habitat in Southwest Colorado and Southeast Utah not only is too much, but isn’t needed at all.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) is concerned that a listing of this size could wreak havoc for local economies and small businesses, negatively impact grazing for ranchers, killing jobs and even increasing energy rates for consumers.
Locally, he said 11 counties have signed an memorandum of understanding to preserve the bird on their own.
“A locally driven alternative will achieve or exceed the species protection rules required under an ESA listing,” Tipton wrote.
Others at the hearings agreed that the plan would devastate the local economy.
“I was astounded to hear that the [fish and wildlife] service only focuses on the national economy and not the local economy,” said John Harja, a representative of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office.
Some land is included that has never been or never can be habitat for the bird, Harja said.
“The state of Utah formally requests that you withdraw the [economic] study,” Harja said.
Matt Thorpe, a representative for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, said the governor “strongly believes that the Gunnison sage grouse is not warranted for a listing,” and “urges the agency to review the science.” Thorpe said the listing would be “detrimental to the people and the socio-economics.”
Kathy Griffin, statewide species-conservation coordinator for sage grouse with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that agency has “significant concerns with the science” used by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“The species is significantly secure in a significant portion of its range,” Griffin said, referring to the largest population of the rare birds, which is in the Gunnison Basin in Colorado and is fairly stable.
The remaining birds are scattered across six other locations in western Colorado and eastern Utah. In total, they occupy approximately 1 million acres – about 7 percent of the bird’s historic range.
The six satellite populations – the Dove Creek/Monticello, Piñon Ridge (Grand Junction), San Miguel, Cimarron-Sims Mesa, Crawford, and Poncha Pass populations – have been in decline for more than a decade.
In 2001, for instance, there were an estimated 350 birds in the Dove Creek/Monticello region. That dropped to 162 birds in 2007, and was down to 147 in 2012. Biologists worry that a disease or a disaster such as a wildfire could easily wipe out the Gunnison Basin population and effectively doom the species to extinction.
Griffin added that the CPW has protected over 35,000 acres of habitat for the grouse. She said some 48,000 acres of private land has been enrolled in conservation agreements to protect the bird and the agency is on track to add nearly 80,000 acres into such agreements.
Augmenting populations and implementing predator control.
“In total the Colorado Parks and Wildlife has spent $40 million on conserving the Gunnison sage grouse,” Griffin said.
Phil Lyman, a San Juan County commissioner, said the listing will hurt the economy of an already poor area and added that it was no coincidence that groups opposed to drilling use the sage grouse to stop such activity.
A listing could cost millions to local landowners, Lyman said.
“Please allow local matters to be handled locally,” he said.
Doug Stowe, a Dolores County commissioner, suggested an on-the-ground approach by local politicians and landowners utilizing conservation agreements.
Stowe asked that an independent economic review should be done that takes multiple uses into account.
“The economic analysis…shows the lack of true analysis in Dolores County,” Stowe said.
He said the service’s economic analysis ignored carbon-dioxide producer Kinder Morgan, which provides 60 percent of the total property-tax revenues in Dolores County.
Ernest Williams, also a Dolores County commissioner, asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to give local counties the tools to help protect the bird.
“If one family loses $10,000, that is a big impact to us,” he said.
Local citizen Bob Barry said the range in the local area has been fragmented at nearly the same level for 60 years, and blamed an increase in other birds for the grouse’s troubles.
“The sky grows black with ravens here, and guess who loves eggs – ravens,” he said. Greg Westfall, city manager of Monticello, said the city was opposed to the proposal as well.
“This would bring a halt to the construction of our federally funded airport,” he said. Montezuma County landowner Sheldon Zwicker testified that the proposed critical habitat for the bird included Coalbed Creek, a creek that is not suitable to drink. “It is evidence that you have not done your homework,” he said.
Larry Johnson placed a bottle of murky yellowish water on the table in front of some Fish and Wildlife officials before giving similar testimony.
“That water is acid, same as what comes out of coal,” he said. “That water right there is the same water you are trying to get grouse to drink. Someone isn’t doing their homework.”
And another citizen, Larry White, accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of “scaring oil companies” off.
But Braun told the Free Press someone has to act quickly if the species is to survive. “Without involvement or an endangered listing, they will disappear,” he said.
The Gunnison sage grouse, Braun added, is a natural part of the ecosystem.
“Each time you remove a piece, eventually the ecosystem will collapse,” he said. “This bird is a part of our heritage. People grew up watching them, eating them. Native Americans have dances similar to theirs.”
Durango, at one point, Braun said, had Gunnison sage grouse.
“Something drastic has to be done,” he said. “As long as there are birds out there, there is hope.”
The comment period closed Dec. 2. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife is expected to release the final designation decision by March 31.