On the brink: Locals worry about an ‘endangered’ listing for sage grouse

The Gunnison sage grouse isn’t on the endangered list, but locals worry it may be soon

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in August that it will take more time to decide whether to add the Gunnison sage grouse to the Endangered Species List.

Top, Gunnison sage grouse strut their stuff during mating season in early spring. A map shows the bird’s occupied habitat and the fragmented and isolated nature of the remaining populations. Photo and map courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife

That’s good news for some residents of rural southwestern Colorado, who hope that the agency will take the time to clear up some fuzziness about the consequences the listing might have on private lands already under contract through federal conservation programs.

But for another set of farmers in the region, it doesn’t matter how long Fish and Wildlife takes to make a decision: they just want the answer to be “no.”

“We’re nervous about how a listing would affect private property rights,” said San Juan County (Utah) Commissioner Bruce Adams. He’s helped field questions at two separate meetings of county residents he described as “outraged” at the suggestion that their property could become subject to federal intervention.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently backed off a plan to transplant 45 Gunnison sage grouse into San Juan County from Colorado to try to bolster the dwindling population. Officials reportedly said they will wait to see whether the bird is listed as endangered before making a move.

“We think it would be better for the state to act like a state and manage the resources within a state boundary,” Adams said, “and keep the federal government out of the state’s business.”

Not a lightning bolt

Susan Linner, field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Colorado Field Office, calls the sage grouse’s Endangered Species List candidacy a “saga” that began in 2000, when the American Ornithologists’ Union identified Gunnison sage grouse as a separate species from the greater sage grouse.

The greater sage grouse lives in every Western state except Arizona and New Mexico – including parts of western Colorado north of Durango and Cortez. It’s also a candidate for the Endangered Species List.

The Gunnison sage grouse, which is down to approximately 4,500 birds total, occupies a much smaller range in southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah, with its strongest population in the Gunnison Basin. The birds also exist in six scattered satellite populations that, by Fish and Wildlife standards, are struggling to hang on. One of those is in the San Miguel Basin, overlapping parts of San Juan County, Utah, and another is centered around Dove Creek.

The agency considered adding the bird to the Endangered Species List but came out with a “not warranted” finding in 2006. They reconsidered that decision a few years later, and came out with a “warranted but precluded” finding in 2010, meaning the bird deserved federal protection, but Fish and Wildlife lacked the funds and manpower to do the job. It was, however, added to the candidate-species list, which is now being revisited as the agency works through the backlog that once overwhelmed it.

But the Gunnison sage grouse listing is incurring its own new delays, partly because of political challenges the Fish and Wildlife Service is encountering in the rural parts of the birds’ range.

A decision this go-round was initially scheduled for June. It was pushed back to September, and late last month the agency announced it may take until December to issue a draft decision. The public will have 60 days to comment, and a final rule is due to be published in September 2013.

“The delay … is mainly because the Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to have some more time up front to work with the local working groups and the people on the ground,” Linner said. “Just yesterday, myself, the assistant regional director and supervisor from the Grand Junction office had a meeting in Montrose with representatives of six of seven population working groups. We heard new information on conservation measures they’ve been taking.”

The working groups are local coalitions often including state biologists, other researchers and – in most cases – landowners, who work on strategies to conserve sage-grouse habitat in each of the places where the birds occur. For the majority of the working groups, an overarching goal is to ensure the survival of the Gunnison sage grouse population – partly so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is less likely to step in.

Then again, Linner said, locals shouldn’t be shocked that the federal agency is considering taking charge of the birds, in light of the fact that efforts by the working groups haven’t shown measurable success.

“I guess I would say that because this is a species that has been worked on at the local level for a long time, it’s not like a bolt from nowhere,” she said. “A lot of private landowners have been involved in conservation efforts.”

All for naught?

One of the most enthusiastic people working in sage-grouse habitat has been Leigh Robertson, coordinator of the sagegrouse working group for the San Miguel Basin population. Robertson has a degree in natural resources and works for a nonprofit called Uncompahgre Com, which is focused on forest health.

She said more than 13,000 acres of land in the San Miguel Basin has been placed into conservation easements, which helps prevent the worst threat of all to sage-grouse survival: outright habitat loss, especially as a consequence of subdivision and development.

Members of her group have also been getting their hands dirty, planting sagebrush and native grasses and trying to control the expansion of invasive species like cheatgrass. They’ve even gone so far as to make use of abandoned mine shafts where water has pooled. In some of those places, they’ve installed solar-powered pumps to create wetlands for the sage grouse.

The working group has become a go-to organization for decisions in sage-grouse habitat. “If a special-use permit comes up in sage-grouse habitat, they’ll bounce it off of us,” Robertson said.

The San Miguel Basin population is the second strongest, after the Gunnison Basin population, with 30 males counted at the leks, or mating grounds, this past year. Using the typical extrapolation for sage grouse, that translates into an overall population estimate of between 100 and 200 birds. But Robertson can’t be sure they’re responding at all to her group’s energetic and varied conservation efforts. She thinks it may be tied more closely to nature.

“After drought years the population tends to go down,” she said. “After wet years it tends to do better.”

Robertson said more conservation easements would probably be a good thing for the birds, and she sees both pros and cons in the possibility of a federal listing. It could help the birds, she said. Then again, “there are going to be some landowners who aren’t too happy about it. Some people are saying, ‘If it gets listed, you can’t come on our land to count the birds any more’.”

Kathy Griffin, statewide grouse coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said there’s another potential downside of a listing in places where people have been rooting for sage grouse.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “They’ve been working in good faith for a number of years. To have the Fish and Wildlife Service come in and say in a sense, ‘That’s all for naught,’ I think it’s very disheartening for a lot of people.”

Complications in Dove Creek

Dolores County Commissioner Julie Kibel isn’t as dead-set against a sage-grouse listing as Adams, the commissioner in San Juan County. But she’s concerned – and she’d like some of the ambiguities cleared up.

“We just met with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the [sage grouse] range really scared us because it takes up a lot of our county,” she said. “We’re concerned about private land rights. I’m afraid this is going to have a lot of complications for CRP ground when they need to go in and mow it down. I’m concerned for ranchers, if they’ll still have their freedoms or if there will be some limitations.”

CRP land is in the Conservation Reserve Program, whereby farmers are paid to grow certain cover crops that prevent erosion and improve wildlife habitat.

Kibel has the idea to use the listing-decision delay to put together a localized conservation plan, to stave off federal intervention. But if the state’s experience is any indication, she’d have a tough road.

Chris Kloster is a biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and he represents that agency on the Monticello-Dove Creek sagegrouse working group.

He said the Dove Creek population took a pretty severe dive after the drought in 2002 and 2003, and appears to be half its former size. Sage-grouse population sizes are estimated indirectly, by observing notoriously flamboyant males during the mating season. Before the drought, male counts hovered around 25, even approaching 30 during wet years. After the drought, researchers have been counting about 10 males each time they’ve visited the leks.

“Since then the population has sort of held stable at that lower number. But we haven’t seen increases back up to pre-drought levels,” he said. “It’s sort of tenuous.”

Kloster said the Dove Creek-Monticello population is unique partly because it lives on a landscape dominated by dryland agriculture. The other groups live on land where the primary use is ranching, and ranching and cattle-grazing can be done in a way that suits the sage grouse.

“It becomes a little more difficult in an area dominated by dryland agriculture,” he said. “Row crops aren’t necessarily compatible with sage-grouse habitat.”

He said the landscape is also fragmented – with primarily modest-sized ownership tracts – and that presents one of several management challenges.

“We don’t have 10,000-acre-large ranches,” he said. “I would guess that the average property ownership is a section. You just have a lot greater number of people to coordinate with.”

And the fact that a fair number of those property owners already work with some federal programs could make an Endangered Species Act listing more complicated, not less.

Kloster said the Farm Bill is a significant component on the landscape. In addition, he estimates that about 16,000 acres across parts of Dolores and San Miguel counties are tied into the Conservation Reserve Program. About a third of that acreage is signed up for a more targeted CRP program, called State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), that‘s meant to provide habitat for sage grouse. According to the Dove Creek office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, 48 landowners are enrolled in SAFE contracts between Dolores Country and parts of San Miguel County.

Quelling the fear

Trouble is, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can’t say yet how people who are already involved in those federal programs would be affected by an endangered-species listing. Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Griffin said it’s possible that “if there’s no federal connection … you could do whatever you wanted, as long as you don’t kill a bird.”

But if private land is already involved in a federal program like CRP, there’s some question about whether that makes it a federal nexus, meaning that the landowner would be subject to limitations as strict as those that would govern a federal action on that land. If so, those landowners could conceivably be prohibited from any actions that would impair endangered-species habitat – for example, plowing up sagebrush.

“At what point it’s a federal nexus … seems pretty wishy-washy at the moment,” Griffin said.

For his part, Kloster has been advocating for patience.

“They’re working on it,” he says of Fish and Wildlife, “but there are obviously a lot of steps in this process, and they can’t work on all of them at the same time. Eventually they’ll explore that issue further.”

Griffin said when Fish and Wildlife has been questioned on these points, they have managed to soothe some anxieties.

At a recent meeting, she said, “we were asking them what’s going to happen when the listing does come out in terms of people having birds on their property. The Fish and Wildlife Service was able to give some scenarios. It kind of helped quell some of the fear.”

Griffin said she’d like to see more people, especially landowners, showing up to meetings when Fish and Wildlife officials visit. And she hopes Fish and Wildlife will take the initiative to visit Dove Creek – or at least arrange a video conference – because most of the meetings to date have been in places quite distant.

She said outreach could go a long way to bring about a solution for the future of sage grouse, starting with the politics.

“I think there are a lot of rumors flying around, and a lot of misconceptions about what’s going to happen when the listing gets determined,” she said. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

From September 2012. Read similar stories about .