A draft recovery plan for the threatened Gunnison sage grouse – a rare bird that once lived in the local area but has greatly dwindled in numbers – doesn’t completely satisfy either conservationists or officials and landowners in the region.
The draft plan was released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on Oct. 31 of last year. The plan includes recommendations for improving sage-grouse habitat to benefit the Dove Creek population – located in Dolores County, Colo., and San Juan County, Utah – despite not a single bird in this population being recorded in the past two years.
“It is not reasonable to believe the overall Draft Recovery Plan as prepared will be successful,” wrote biologist Clait Braun in an email to the Free Press. “At best it will be a ‘straggling failure’ while at worse it will lead to extinction of Gunnison Sage-grouse.”
Braun was one of the biologists that recognized the Gunnison sage grouse as a distinct species in the late 1970s and worked with state and federal land managers for decades to sustain the bird’s populations.
San Juan County, Utah, posted a comment letter on the plan, citing one of its primary concerns as the potential for translocation of birds into the county. In the letter dated Dec. 3, 2019, San Juan County Commission Chairman Kenneth Maryboy wrote, “San Juan County does not support translocation even on a limited scale to prevent extirpation of the species in this area.”
In an email to the Free Press, FWS biologist Allison Vendramel clarified the purpose of a recovery plan. “The FWS develops recovery plans to provide a road map to help all partners conserve listed species and their ecosystems. A recovery plan provides guidance on how best to help listed species achieve recovery, but it is not a regulatory document. The FWS uses the best science available to develop recovery criteria and actions that, if achieved, would support sustainability of the whole species. These criteria and actions take into account the limitations associated with converted land uses, permanent disturbance, and climate.”
Vendremel continued, “In Dove Creek, our focus is on enhancing the existing sagebrush, especially on state, federal, and protected lands. Additionally, our focus in this population is to work collaboratively with landowners to develop new approaches to improve the whole ecosystem and work with their needs.”
Dolores County Commissioner Julie Kibel has been working with FWS, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and others to educate them on the conditions and status of the Dove Creek population. She organized a field trip with FWS in October of sagegrouse habitat in Dolores County. She is coordinating with local landowners and experts through the Dolores County Sage Grouse Working Group to send comments to FWS on the draft recovery plan.
At a recent meeting Dolores County landowners voiced confusion about what would be allowed under the plan. The draft plan specifies “delisting criteria” for the birds: “Habitat in Dove Creek is improved and maintained at a quantity calculated to support a high male count (HMC) of 30, although this criterion is not measured by achieving the target HMC.”
What is not specified are the activities or the amount of habitat needed to support 30 male birds.
According to Braun, the bird must be a priority in public land management. “What is needed is a commitment to managing all suitable Federal Public Lands in Dolores County and elsewhere specifically for Gunnison Sage grouse,” he wrote the Free Press. “All livestock grazing of public lands should cease until present and former Sage-grouse habitat can be demonstrated to support Gunnison Sage-grouse. Some water developments will be needed as will be reseeding of dryland alfalfa, native forbs, and taller grasses. Some selective removal of juniper and piñon pine may be helpful. All interior fences should be removed.”
But most of the Dove Creek population’s designated habitat is on private land. There is concern by some landowners that the federal government will use a “chicken” (aka sage grouse) to control their land.
Braun stressed the need to support private landowners. “I personally and professionally believe that we need to offer private landowners incentives (NRCS, CPW, USFWS) to manage some private lands adjacent to Federal Public Lands to increase the amount of suitable habitat for Gunnison Sage grouse,” he said. “Farmers and other landowners should have the opportunity to increase their income and value of their private lands if they managed them to benefit the ‘chicken’.”