Court cases are leading to review of Bush administration decisions
Two animal species unique to Gunnison County and the Four Corners region could be getting fresh consideration for protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act, after two environmental groups pressured the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to review controversial Bush administration decisions affecting the Gunnison’s prairie dog and the Gunnison sage grouse.
This happens in the aftermath of the resignation of Julie MacDonald, the Bush administration’s discredited former deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the U.S. Department of Interior. MacDonald was found to have tampered with scientific findings to keep the species from being listed.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Gunnison sage grouse, whose numbers have declined by 98 percent in the last century, was denied listing despite the recommendations of FWS biologists and the Audubon Society’s listing it as one of the 10 most endangered birds in North America.
The CBD and several other groups filed a lawsuit in November 2006 after the FWS had denied the sage grouse protection. That lawsuit resulted in a notice filed by the FWS on Monday, March 23, saying that they would revisit the decision in light of the misconduct surrounding the listing of endangered species.
“What [the federal agencies] have agreed to do is make a new 12-month finding during which they will make the decision of whether to list or not,” Amy Atwood, a senior attorney with the CBD, says of the sage grouse.
She said the fight over the listing of the sage grouse could conclude in one of several ways: it could be reclassified as a candidate species, like it was before the denial, full protection could be granted immediately or full protection could be denied.
“Endangered wildlife like Gunnison sage grouse deserve a fair chance at protection,” says Erin Robertson, senior staff biologist for Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver. “After years of political interference, it is time for a speedy, unbiased decision that will provide the Gunnison sage grouse the help it needs.”
If that decision results in listing the sage grouse as an endangered species, the Gunnison Basin Sage Grouse Strategic Plan, the county’s plan for “increasing the abundance and viability” of the species, could be preempted by any FWS plan that would be developed or incorporated into the FWS plan for reviving the species.
“We really aren’t going to change what we’re doing until the sage grouse is listed and the federal government takes over management of the species. We don’t know yet how they will do that,” says Jim Cochran, Gunnison County’s wildlife conservation coordinator.
“Obviously, we would like to see them adopt much of what the county has implemented in the strategic plan,” he says.
The strategic plan lists four goals, the last of which is “To implement an effective strategy and programs which will preclude the need to list the Gunnison Sage Grouse or at a minimum demonstrate the willingness of the Gunnison community to preserve and protect habitat which will lessen the impact if listing does occur.”
If the sage grouse is listed as endangered, the FWS will have increased power to regulate public or private land to protect the habitat for the species.
“Public or private, it does not matter where that habitat is. It will be in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s jurisdiction,” says Cochran. “The concern from the beginning was how much impact listing will have on community. Ranchers, who generally have a lot of private land and run cattle on public lands, will be impacted significantly.
“We’d like to work as much of that out in advance as possible, to soften the landing, so to speak,” Cochran says.
Local rancher Curtis Allen recently enrolled 2,700 acres of his land into a new FWS conservation program aimed at protecting grouse habitat, making him the first landowner in Colorado to participate in the program. You can read more about the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances in the online extras section at crestedbuttenews.com
County officials agree that the federal government would need to tread lightly if it wants the support of the local community, especially when it comes to taking control of their private land.
“I think that there is no question that the game would change [if the sage grouse were listed]. I would bet there would be fairly widespread resistance in the valley to federal listing,” says county commissioner Hap Channell. “But what do you do? Do you lock the door and hide, or try to work with the Fish and Wildlife service to limit the impact to the community.”
But listing is not a foregone conclusion and it surely won’t happen right away. Now that the FWS has agreed to revisit its 2006 finding, it will start another 12-month finding. If the finding is that the sage grouse needs protection, another 12-month scientific review will begin before any decision is made.
Prairie dog lawsuit
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 12-month finding on the status of the Gunnison’s prairie dog has also been challenged by a lawsuit filed in federal court by WildEarth Guardians on Tuesday, March 24.
The fight over the listing of the Gunnison’s prairie dog started when 74 groups and individuals petitioned the FWS to list the Gunnison’s prairie dog as an endangered species and give it special protection.
Four years later the FWS turned down the petitioners’ request in favor of a ruling that would protect only a portion of the population.
Those protections were then delayed indefinitely by the FWS, which said in its finding, published in the federal register February 5, 2008, “listing is precluded by higher priority actions.”
Cochran says the county will just wait for a conclusion to the lawsuit before they make any related action.
“Until the court makes a decision on whether or not to require another 12-month finding, all we can do is continue with the plan that is in place,” he says.