March 2013

No easy solutions in sage-grouse situation

It could hardly have come at a worse time. With many residents of Southwest Colorado and Southeast Utah already angry about the results of the November election, and outraged over what they perceive as attempts by federal agencies to cut off motorized access to public lands, the January announcement that there might be a new endangered species in the area was guaranteed to increase resentment toward the federal government.

But, although it may have seemed as though the announcement came out of the blue, it really didn’t. For years, researchers have talked about the dwindling population of the Gunnison sage grouse, which lives in pockets of Colorado and Utah. When, in 2000, the bird was declared a distinct species rather than a sub-species of the greater sage grouse, it seemed clear that an endangered-species listing was inevitable at some point in time.

In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Endangered Species Act, declared the Gunnison sage grouse a “candidate” for listing. In 2006, the agency removed it from the list as candidate species. That decision was later questioned when it was decided that the Bush administration had interfered with the agency’s decision-making process, and in 2010 the bird was found to be “warranted but precluded” for listing, meaning it deserved to be listed but the agency didn’t have the resources to do so at that time. Pressured by environmental groups, FWS agreed in 2011 to a timeline that committed it to making final decisions about listing the Gunnison and some other species.

Then came the announcement this January that the agency was proposing to list the bird and declare 1.7 million acres as critical habitat.

Since then, residents of Dolores County, Colo., and San Juan County, Utah – where small populations of the bird survive and where much of the proposed critical habitat would lie – have been frantically mustering arguments against the listing and/or habitat designation, and sending comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Their worries – which are certainly understandable and generally well-founded – are that the designations could hinder development on private land and slow energy production on public land.

Contrary to some fears, the listing would not mean that people’s private land could be taken away or that anyone who owns property within the critical-habitat area couldn’t do anything — but they might have to first get the approval of FWS. Restrictions would apply when there is a federal connection involved in a project, meaning the land belongs to the federal government, the proposed project requires a federal permit, or federal funding is involved. Otherwise, the effects on private landowners are somewhat unclear, beyond the fact that they cannot kill or harass the birds. But a “federal connection” could even mean having land in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take their land out of agricultural production and plant certain cover crops that prevent erosion and improve wildlife habitat, and that could mean a sizable number of landowners might be affected.

Lost in all the furor is discussion of the bird itself, a 5-pound ground-dweller much smaller than the related greater sage grouse. Both grouse species were once numerous, back when the sagebrush plains of this nation teemed with life – before they were fenced, farmed, roaded, and ruthlessly denuded of sagebrush through chaining. Anyone who has witnessed these birds’ charming mating display, as they strut, jiggle and burble, understands that their disappearance would be the loss of something very special. But sage grouse are going to be hard to save. They’re easy prey for a host of species, from eagles and ravens to bobcats and coyotes to domestic dogs and cats, and they don’t adapt readily to changes in habitat.

Foes of the listing are hoping to challenge the grounds on which FWS has decided the Gunnison should be called endangered, but it’s difficult to see how a species that is down to 4,500 birds total can be viewed as anything but endangered. Although the largest group of birds, near Gunnison, Colo., is believed to be stable, the population of the “satellite” groups is shrinking. The Dove Creek population is thought to be half its former size, down from about 25 males 10 years ago to about 10 today, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In Utah, the population has shrunk from as high as 1,050 in recent years to just 103, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. And while it might seem logical to protect the main population and let the others go, satellite populations are important not only for genetic diversity but because a single wildfire could wipe out the entire species if they are all in one place.

Opponents might have a better chance of success with FWS by arguing that the Gunnison isn’t really a distinct species, but even if it’s not, the greater sage grouse itself is declining rapidly and may soon become endangered, too. In all likelihood, the Gunnison will be listed. The key issues are going to be where the critical habitat is designated and how the designation affects development. And those are crucial questions in an area such as Dolores County, where 16 percent of residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and unemployment is stubbornly high. While there are no easy answers to the situation, we recommend a few things:

• Local officials should be careful to make sure they know the facts when talking about what will happen if the bird is listed, rather than repeating apocryphal horror stories about “something that happened to someone somewhere” under the ESA, fanning the flames of outrage.

• Fish and Wildlife officials need to be completely open and transparent about potential consequences to private landowners. They should answer questions in a simple, straightforward way and if they don’t know the answer to a particular query, they should do their best to find out.

• The comment period should be extended, and more public meetings should take place locally with FWS representatives. People need to be able to ask them questions directly, so long as the meetings continue to be civil, as they have been.

• Locals need to realize that Fish and Wildlife folks are enforcing a law that has been in place for 40 years and has enjoyed broad support from the majority of the populace. It isn’t fair to blame the agency for the existence of the Endangered Species Act. It was signed into law by Richard Nixon, a Republican, and it remains a powerful tool, albeit a sometimes-clumsy one. According to an April 2005 study by BioScience, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, threatened species with protected critical habitat are twice as likely to survive as those without. The study, which analyzed 1,095 species studied by the FWS, also found that the longer a plant or animal was protected under the act, the less likely it was to continue to decline. If the ESA needs to be changed, that will have to come about through legislation, but the law has to have some teeth or no animals would be protected.

• Still, landowners shouldn’t be “punished” for living in sage-grouse habitat. If the bird is indeed listed and critical habitat is declared in Southwest Colorado and/ or Southeast Utah, local landowners and officials should carefully document any instances they believe demonstrate unfair treatment or detrimental consequences to important activities. All eyes will be upon Fish and Wildlife if the sage grouse becomes officially endangered. The agency needs to be judicious in determining how the law affects potential development, and it must be scrupulously respectful