Nov. 12–The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is listing Colorado’s Gunnison sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a move that has Oregon government officials, environmentalists and ranchers wondering what it means for them.
The decision, announced Wednesday, creates federal protections for the bird, but gives the agency latitude to exempt some land users from facing restrictions tied to the listing.
It has implications in Oregon, one of 11 states where a related species, the greater sage grouse, is also under consideration for Endangered Species Act listing. A decision is expected in late 2015.
The threatened listing means Fish and Wildlife biologists have determined the Gunnison sage grouse is under such stress that it could be in danger of extinction within 40 years. It’s a notch down from an endangered designation, which is reserved for animals currently facing extinction.
The Gunnison sage grouse, a smaller relative of the greater sage grouse, also has a much smaller range and population. Their numbers have dwindled to fewer than 5,000 birds living primarily in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin. Small groups are also strewn throughout western Colorado and a small patch of Utah.
Fish and Wildlife in 2008 deemed both the Gunnison and the greater sage grouse to be warranted for listing, but opted not to act on the decision. A legal settlement in 2011 required the agency to make a final decision last spring, but the timeline was moved back under pressure from state and local governments and private land users who wanted more time to show they were working to improve Gunnison grouse habitat.
In a statement Wednesday, Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe commended those conservation efforts, but said they fell short of keeping the Gunnison grouse off the list.
“The best available science indicates that the species still requires the Act’s protection,” Ashe said.
Listing the species as threatened rather than endangered enables the agency to craft a so-called 4(d) rule exempting certain land users whose activities are found not to be harmful to the bird. Activities include agriculture, ranching, and some development.
A spokesman for the agency said officials would begin the process of crafting the rule within weeks, with a goal of finalizing in mid-2015.
The matter will almost certainly end up in court. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has vowed to sue Fish and Wildlife to block the protections. Meanwhile, Western Watersheds Project Director Travis Bruner said his agency “is likely to make a filing” pushing for stronger protections.
Some Oregon stakeholders are looking to the Colorado decision as a bellwether for things to come here.
“I view this as a very discouraging message,” said Bruner, whose agency is also heavily involved in Oregon’s greater sage grouse debate.
But Theo Stein, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife, warned that the agency’s decision Wednesday shouldn’t be seen as an indicator of things to come for greater sage grouse.
“Gunnison and greater are two different species, with significant differences in the number of birds and the distribution of their range,” Stein said.
Greater sage grouse are far greater in number than Gunnison. Biologist estimate between 200,000 and 500,000 are scattered throughout the West with about 30,000 in Oregon. Other populations reside in Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and the Dakotas.
Oregon ranchers whose cattle graze on sage grouse habitat have teamed up with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on measures aimed at staving off a listing. They’ve launched conservation efforts to make the land more hospitable for the birds, and the bureau is in the process of amending its Resource Management Plans in Oregon and other states to take sage grouse habitat needs into account.
Oregon’s plans will be submitted to Fish and Wildlife in the spring, in hopes of convincing the agency’s leaders that an Endangered Species listing unnecessary.
“You always want to get things done at the lowest level possible, to make sure you’ve got flexibility to manage it in a way that makes sense,” said Jeff Clark, a spokesman for BLM in Oregon.
Bruner, the Western Watersheds director, disagrees. Without a listing in Oregon, he said, local conservation efforts will fall short of protecting the birds.
But not all environmentalists are jeering the self-management approach. Brian Rutledge, a policy advisor for the National Audubon Society, said Oregon ranchers’ efforts to stave off a listing shows commitment to the bird’s future.
“We’re in much better and different shape than we are with the Gunnisons,” Rutledge said. “We’ve got a better chance of keeping this bird into the future.”