“Don’t get me wrong, I love the bird”
With the deadline to comment on the proposed listing of the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) looming large in early April, the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association sponsored a panel discussion Thursday, March 14 for the public to hear about the proposed listing, as well as what the Stockgrowers see as the reasons for opposing it.
The panel consisted of ranchers Ken Spann, Burt Guerrieri, and Greg Peterson as well as Al Pfister, a former regional manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service who has seen the Endangered Species Act applied in communities across the west. He also sat on the County-sponsored Gunnison Sage grouse Strategic Committee that advised in the management of the species locally.
The discussion started with the process for listing a species as endangered or threatened under the ESA, and moved into why the proposal is gaining steam now and how the public might be impacted.
Making, and then considering, the proposal is a long and bureaucratic process that will likely lead to more long and bureaucratic processes if the bird is listed as either endangered or threatened, Pfister said.
When the Fish and Wildlife Service considers a species for protection under the ESA, Pfister explained there are five criteria taken into account before the decision to list is made. If the species meets just one of the criteria, it makes the list.
For the Gunnison sage grouse, Pfister said habitat consideration is a large part of why the bird, which was only officially recognized as a unique species in 2000, is getting so much attention.
He also explained that Gunnison sage grouse could be listed for a lack of regulatory mechanisms aimed at protecting the species. “How well development is controlled relative to the well being of the grouse is a significant factor,” he said.
In Gunnison County, where the effort to stabilize the Gunnison sage grouse population has been a matter of public policy for a decade, the insinuation that existing regulations aren’t working is a serious point of contention.
Local effort at conservation
Even before the Gunnison sage grouse was recognized by science as being distinct from the Greater sage grouse in 2000, Gunnison County had taken a proactive role in the preservation of the species, eventually closing roads seasonally to limit the human interference with the bird and taking steps to preserve its habitat. The efforts were made, in part, to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing because of the land-use restrictions, real or perceived, that come with it.
Until he retired from the Service in 2011, Pfister was active in the local process. “It’s been great working with these people up here. We haven’t always agreed, but I guess that’s part of life. But I have a really genuine feeling that people up here care, obviously, about your livelihoods. But you also care about the birds,” he said.
Since the working group was formed, Spann said signs point to a Gunnison sage grouse population that is stable and even growing by an average of 31-33 birds a year over the last 60 years.
But based on a rating system used by the FWS that gives a species a priority between 1 and 12, with 1 being the highest priority for listing, the Gunnison sage grouse still has a priority listing of 2.
Pfister, who was candid in telling the audience he believed the species deserves listing, said based on his experience, an “extremely high percentage” of the species that make it as far as the Gunnison sage grouse has in the listing process receive some form of protection, although he couldn’t say if it would be listed as threatened or endangered. The distinction, he said, wouldn’t change the impact to public land users much.
The impacts from a listing would come largely in the form of restrictions placed on activities that require a federal permit, like cattle grazing. For the Stockgrowers, and a lot of the other public land users who went to Thursday’s meeting, the fear is that their activity will be seen as somehow detrimental to the species, and then restricted on its behalf.
Pfister, however, maintained that a listing wouldn’t stop 99.9 percent of the existing activities currently being permitted on public land in the Gunnison Basin. “Over an 8-year period, the FWS put together some statistics and 200,000 to 300,000 actions were reviewed under the ESA and .1 percent of those activities did not go forward,” he said. However, they might require some sort of mitigation before being approved, he said.
And although the Fish and Wildlife Service employs an economist to provide an analysis of the economic impacts a listing would have, Pfister said it’s only for information purposes.
“The overall listing decision does not take into account any of the economic impacts of the listing decision,” Pfister said. “The way the act is written, the listing decision is based on the best scientific information available. But no matter how good the science is, there’s always room for debate in there and I can pretty much guarantee you there will be debate on this one also.”
“Good, honest debate”
He wasn’t wrong, as the debate was already raging around him. The audience ran the gamut from aging ranchers to college-age recreationalists. If there was support for the listing, it wasn’t voiced by anyone other than Pfister.
Ken Spann, whose family has owned ranchlands in the Gunnison Basin for generations, disagreed with Pfister’s view of the impacts a listing would have, naming the proposal among the three biggest threats the valley’s economy, and ecology, has faced in his lifetime. The ecological impacts, as he explained later, had little to do with the sage grouse and everything to do with water.
Spann prefaced his opposition to listing the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened or endangered saying, “Don’t get me wrong, I love the bird.” But he believes the proposal to list the bird wasn’t based entirely on science, as Pfister suggested. Instead he blamed the proposal on the agenda of a “group of individuals that are still behind the scenes on this, some of whose agenda is well know to the livestock industry and whose stated public purpose is to stop all grazing on public lands,” Spann said.
“Ultimately what this is about is the federal government coming in and saying, ‘you haven’t done well enough. We need to do it for you or we need to tell you how to do it or what you want to do, we need to approve it,” he continued. “There’s a fundamental shift in the decision making authority that’s possible with these kinds of rule-makings. Make no mistake about it.”
He was also visibly frustrated by the fact that the timeline in the listing process is being driven by a court settlement that came out of a district court, “not in Denver, not in Salt Lake City or Tucson or Phoenix,” he said. “But in a District Court in Washington DC, a long ways from here and I don’t suspect there were many parties from this community that were party to that litigation.”
Spann commented on the County’s efforts and the science that suggests the Gunnison sage grouse is doing all right as a species in the Gunnison Basin, and even growing in number over the long term.
“That’s a consequence of a lot of different things,” he said. “It’s a consequence of a really significant effort on the part of the community to do the right kinds of things out on the ground. They are seeing results. So there is real debate about whether this species is truly endangered.”
And the impacts, he said, would be real. He told the audience everyone in the community would be subject to a higher cost of living in the Gunnison Valley, “because a lot of what we’re going to want to do is going to need to be approved by someone else. And we’re going to have to bear that cost.
“As a consequence of federal officials deciding it’s appropriate to list the bird because the American people have decided that endangered species need to be protected,” Spann continued. “But for this species in this area, the real cost on behalf of the American public is going to be borne by this community.”
It could be expensive
Burt Guerrieri, who is also from a long line of Gunnison Valley ranchers, offered an analysis of his own related to what the economic impacts of listing would be on the ranching community.
He said the cattle being grazed on public lands, based on their number and the accumulation of body mass over the summer, is by itself worth $10 million to the valley’s ranches, which in turn support more than 100 families across the community. If listing the Gunnison sage grouse leads to the kinds of restrictions being anticipated by the ranchers, that’s $10 million that won’t be there next year.
Panelist Greg Peterson, who is a rancher and long-time member of the Gunnison Sage grouse Strategic Committee, said “If we weren’t doing what needed to be done, I wouldn’t be afraid to say to this community that I thought the bird needs to be listed,” he said. “But that’s not the case.”
Peterson also spoke to the importance of maintaining some local control over the management of the species and the value of being able to pick up the phone and call county wildlife coordinator Jim Cochran if a landowner has a question. “We can’t talk to Jim if we’re dealing with a federal agency,” he said.
“I think we’ll see significant changes in May, June, July on all public lands in the Gunnison Basin if the bird is listed,” Spann said. “There are a lot of people who worked really hard [on preservation measures] and the way the Service determined that some of that activity was inadequate, it’s going to be really challenging to go forward in a cooperative manner.”
“The expectation is that there will be litigation in this one way or another once the listing decision is made,” he said. “Our community needs to be able to respond appropriately whenever the decision get made in that regard.”
There was talk of litigation to stop the FWS from listing the bird and several questions from the audience related to how the listing would affect the ranching business. County commissioner Phil Chamberland asked, “What would the Fish and Wildlife Service do to achieve a different result?” And if there is something that could be done better, “why haven’t they communicated that with us?” he said. Pfister said that could only be determined after a full analysis.
Crested Butte-based developer Ted Colvin asked if there was a number of birds the FWS hoping to see in its listing proposal, but Pfister explained the listing has more to do with habitat concerns than the actual number of birds. “That seems incredible to me,” Colvin said.
Ken Spann’s father, Lee, who was moderating the discussion, stood to say some final words to the audience. “Ranchers own three things: they own land, they own livestock and they own water, “ he said. “If we can’t make a living with cattle because we can’t run ‘em [on public land], if we can’t sell our land for development … then what’s left for us to sell. Water. I think you need to think about what the valley from here to Crested Butte would look like without water. The economic impact of the listing of this bird is unbelievable for the county.”
The comment period for the listing decision was extended by three weeks, until April 2. The final rule is expected by September 30.