Sage grouse issue unites county and local groups
Written by Aimee Brown   
Wednesday, 27 March 2013
Southwest counties working together to have their voices heard

In a recent survey of 41 Gunnison County ranching families, only two individuals believed the Gunnison sage grouse and its associated critical habitat should receive protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).


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The survey, which focused on ranching families who own lands or grazing leases that serve as habitat for the grouse and who have acreage in excess of 500 acres, was part of a larger study exploring the social context and community impact of the proposed listing. 
“Right now we need more information,” said Corrine Knapp, a doctoral candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the study’s author. “People are making decisions based on whatever kinds of information are available to them; sometimes that means it’s a neighbor’s opinion, and sometimes it might be something else.”
The Gunnison sage grouse was established as a unique species distinct from the greater sage grouse in the 1990s. Concerns over the population’s viability arose shortly after the identification, and in 1995 local stockgrowers, environmental groups, county officials and state and federal agencies formed a working group to plan for the future of the species and to address related concerns. Since the inception of the group more than $30 million has been spent on conservation efforts and land easements to protect the grouse in Gunnison County and other critical areas.
Today, there are approximately 5,000 adult Gunnison sage grouse spread across seven distinct populations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. The largest population, about 4,000 birds, is located in Gunnison County. Yet, as threats of fragmentation, habitat loss and a lack of county regulations remain, concerns for the bird have continued, said Jim Cochran, Gunnison County conservation coordinator.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species under the ESA. The listing would be accompanied by the designation of 1.7 million acres of land as critical habitat for the grouse. It’s a move that could force radical changes both to how the grouse has previously been managed, and to how landowners could use their land.
Locally much of the concern is centered on a loss of available public lands for cattle grazing, and the potential for the closure of popular recreational trails.
“The ESA has proven it can keep species from extinction, and people are largely in support of the act,” said Knapp, who has been working in Gunnison County since 2011. “However, there have been widespread critiques of the implementation measures associated with listing.”
Within Gunnison County there is also concern over the potential for a loss of local feedback and involvement in management that could result in negative impacts on the economy and culture of the valley. In addition, said Knapp, if listing does occur the county could experience changes to the community, with some people choosing to retire or move on to different opportunities because of the challenges brought by increased regulations.
“The goal for more than a decade has been to increase the abundance, viability and vitality of Gunnison sage grouse,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Paula Swenson. Under local management there have been changes to planning and land use processes, establishment of conservation easements, fee acquisitions and reserve programs and the involvement of conservationists and biologists.
If an ESA listing occurs there is considerable concern that the work done locally will have been for nothing, said Swenson.
The USFWS is currently accepting public comment on the listing proposals, and in an effort to bolster the visibility and strength of past and present local efforts Gunnison County is collaborating on a Memorandum of Understanding with 10 other counties. A conference call between commissioners from those ten counties was held last week, and a follow-up meeting is planned for April 3 in Montrose.
“If we all band together as counties, we will be much stronger politically,” said Swenson. “We want to collectively work to avoid the need for listing and to keep management in the hands of local and state governments.”
The 11 counties slated to be involved in the agreement are: Gunnison, Saguache, Dolores, Montezuma, Delta, Montrose, Mesa, Hinsdale, San Miguel, and Ouray, and San Juan in southeast Utah.
The group is currently working on developing its comments for submission to the USFWS prior to the April 2 deadline. They also plan to share comments with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and other interested parties.