HomeNews U.S. Fish and Wildlife ruling on Sage Grouse pushed back six months
U.S. Fish and Wildlife ruling on Sage Grouse pushed back six months
Written by Aimee Eaton
Wednesday, 17 July 2013
USFWS director visits Gunnison Basin
This week the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced it will be at least another six months before a ruling is made on the proposed protection of the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The agency said the extension is a result of newly received information and requests from stakeholders for additional time in which to issue public comments. The new deadline for a decision is March 31, 2014.
“We heard loud and clear from many people invested in Gunnison sage grouse conservation that there is additional scientific information we should consider during our decision-making process,” said USFWS Mountain-Prairie regional director Noreen Walsh in a press release. “In order to consider that information and make use of the best available science, we are extending the timeline of our final decision on how to conserve this important sagebrush species.” A key piece of information the USFWS will review during the extension is the 2013 Gunnison Sage-Grouse Lek County Summary and Population Estimate Final Report, released July 12. Compiled by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the report found that both male and female sage grouse counts were up from last year, and the basin-wide population was estimated at 4,160 birds, an increase of 78 birds from 2012. According to the locally developed Gunnison sage grouse management plan, these numbers meet population objectives for recovery and sustainability. “It is highly unlikely given the size of the current population of Gunnison sage grouse that the species would experience extinction within the next 50 years,” said Nathan Seward, one of the authors of the report and a wildlife conservation biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The Gunnison sage grouse is a small, ground-nesting bird native to the sagebrush ecosystems found south of the Colorado River in Colorado and Utah. Historically, it has been heavily affected by habitat loss and fragmentation, human disturbance and predation. However, since 1995 a local stakeholder group has been working to mitigate these issues through conservation efforts and land easements. “With a majority of the grouse population in the Gunnison Valley, we have developed as a community to see their protection and conservation not as a hassle, but as a responsibility,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck. Since the formation of the stakeholder group more than $30 million has been spent on conservation and land easements in the region. Despite this in January 2013 the USFWS proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species under the ESA. If the grouse is listed, an associated 1.7 million acres of land within Gunnison Basin and surrounding areas would be designated as critical habitat and made subject to federal regulations for the protection of the bird. According to county attorney David Baumgarten, a listing could have dramatic repercussions, with the potential to negatively impact many of the relationships that have been carefully built over sage grouse in the Gunnison Valley. “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,” said Baumgarten in the county’s first round of public comments to the USFWS. “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.” With one eye toward the possible repercussions of a listing and the other toward the future of sage grouse in the Gunnison basin, the Gunnison County commissioners invited USFWS director Dan Ashe to visit the region and see first-hand what was being done to protect the species. “There is an institutional culture of list and be sued, or don’t list and be sued,” said Baumgarten. “We’re hoping to show the director that there is an alternative, and that cooperation is a viable tool for management.” Ashe arrived on Tuesday, July 16 and spent the day touring ranches and lands in the Ohio Creek drainage, an important habitat area for breeding sage grouse, and meeting with stakeholders involved in the grouse conservation and management plan. “The one word I would use to describe what I saw happening here today is ‘impressive,’” said Ashe during a meeting of the Gunnison Sage Grouse Strategic Planning Group in the afternoon. “There is a commitment here to making sure you are being good stewards to the bird and to the land, but we need to learn more.” He went on to say that the law regulating listing of the grouse requires the USFWS to look only at the status of the bird and the current and future threats to the population. “We’re treating this decision as we do all listing decisions, and the law tells us we can only look at the science,” he said. “That’s all we can consider. I understand you want a non-warranted decision made, but a listing is certainly not the end of the world, especially given all the groundwork you have laid.” Ashe ended his visit with the strategic group by encouraging the audience to take full advantage of the six-month extension on the decision to list. “We will commit to having a continuous dialogue with you between now and March 31, when a decision must be made,” said Ashe. “This is a great model and it can result in great things for the species … but even though you’re doing everything well, we could still list the bird.” The public comment period for the proposed listing will end on September 3, 2013. Comments may be submitted electronically or in hard copy. For more information, visit, www.regulations.gov and enter Docket No. FWS-R6-ES-2012-0108 in the search box.