HomeNews Local control emphasized in area’s sage grouse input
Local control emphasized in area’s sage grouse input
Written by Aimee Brown
Wednesday, 03 April 2013
HCCA on board
The deadline for public comments on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) proposed rule to list the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed on Tuesday, April 2, and it appears the majority of the comments coming from the valley are in opposition to listing.
In what some community members are calling a surprising move, even local environmental watchdog group High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA) is supporting community-based management of the Gunnison sage grouse. The move brings HCCA, which has been viewed as opposed to regional management, closer to the stance of Gunnison County officials who do not believe the bird would benefit from listing under the ESA “HCCA’s official standpoint was nine years old,” said HCCA public lands director Alli Melton. “With the work that has been done locally in the last several years, we see there is potential for a county plan to work, and in the big picture it doesn’t matter who manages the bird as long as it’s managed appropriately.” While supportive of local efforts, HCCA is not as strong in its opposition to federal listing as many local groups, stating that even if the bird is not listed federally the USFWS should be made responsible for identifying and setting the objectives that local measures would then achieve. “We have trust in the Fish and Wildlife Service, and believe it will choose the correct management plan for the overall protection and benefit of the bird,” said Melton, adding that the involvement and contributions of the community would be imperative to successful management. “At this point, we’re past the deadline for public comment and we’re in a wait-and-see period until September,” said Melton. “Regardless of the outcome it will be critical to have community buy-in for the decision.” The Gunnison County commissioners are not quite as ready to accept whatever decision the USFWS hands down. “For over 18 years the Gunnison community—public, private and individual, environmental and business—consistently has provided efforts that have resulted in an actual increase in the population of the bird,” wrote Gunnison County attorney David Baumgarten in a summary of the county’s public comments. “The scope and depth and quality and consistency of these efforts can only be provided by a ‘bottom-up’ effort under a collegial umbrella of state and federal partnership.” The Gunnison sage grouse was identified as a unique species in the early 1990s. Shortly after its identification concerns arose over the population’s health, and individuals and groups at the local, state and federal level began working to determine best management strategies for the protection of the species. These groups identified three primary threats to the birds: habitat degradation and loss, fragmentation, and lack of regulation. Since these groups began working to protect the grouse, $30 million has been spent on conservation efforts and land easements in Gunnison County and other critical areas. According to Gunnison County officials, the grouse population within the county is on the rebound. In their comments, the Gunnison County commissioners wrote, “The Gunnison Basin population of Gunnison sage grouse is stable and growing, healthy and likely to persist in the long term.” The commissioners went on to note the population within the county comprised 88 percent of the total Gunnison sage grouse population—there are seven distinct populations of Gunnison sage grouse spread across southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah—and within the county the birds have experienced a 33 percent increase in population since 2001. “With this number of Gunnison sage grouse the risk of extinction in 50 years is less than .5 percent,” wrote the commissioners. If federal listing should occur it is unclear how management would change. However, it is likely that there would be changes in local land use laws and regulations that would affect ranching and recreation. In addition, it would be likely that management decisions would largely be made at a federal level with an overall decline in local involvement. “Private landowners have contributed thousands of hours to attend meetings, change landscape management, plant preferred species, and provide active management all in the name of Gunnison sage grouse conservation,” wrote Baumgarten. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has not capitalized on the extraordinary efforts of the Gunnison Basin community, federal and state agencies, and the remainder of southwest and southeast Utah communities. These efforts include the current execution of a MOU [memorandum of understanding] by 12 counties in two states. Continuing the current partnership efforts would be of significant biological benefit to the Gunnison sage grouse; and a finding of ‘not warranted’ would be an affirmation to all who are involved in the efforts.” In addition to the USFWS’s lack of consideration for local efforts, Colorado Parks and Wildlife said the science used by the USFWS in support of listing was “questionable.” “The existing data do not support the conclusion that the Gunnison sage grouse is threatened with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” stated the agency. “Rather, we believe the best available science demonstrates that the species is sufficiently secure in a significant portion of its range that listing under the Endangered Species Act is not warranted.” All public comments submitted to the USFWS on the proposed listing can be viewed at www.regulations.gov. A decision on whether or not to the list bird is expected by September 30, 2013.