Here’s something you won’t hear me say very often: ”Republican congressman Scott Tipton and I are on the same page.” And so apparently are U.S. senators Mark Udall, Michael Bennet and Orin Hatch. So are the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Audubon Society. Talk about strange bedfellows.
I have occasionally made the case for the need for government in this country. Most people probably agree that government isn’t automatically a bad thing but stupid government makes it hard on everyone. Stupid government showed its head in Gunnison County last week when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to list the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened.” That decision threw sand in the eyes of a diverse group from the area that has worked to make the bird’s life better. It is a group that could seriously set the national example for collaborative success, yet they were thrown under a bureaucratic bus and that could do more harm in the grander scheme. It just seems so shortsighted, lame and like a decision made in fear and appeasement.
The U.S. FWS “decided to ignore the scientific experts, and in true Washington-knows-best fashion, listen to the bureaucracy instead, jeopardizing locally tailored species preservation efforts already successfully under way in Colorado,” commented Tipton. So it appears.
The quick background is that a coalition of individuals and groups in Gunnison County have spent literally millions of dollars and thousands of hours to develop a concrete strategy to save the Gunnison sage grouse. There are ranchers and environmentalists, developers and scientists, county commissioners, state and federal public lands managers, all on the team. And you know what? The strategy is working. The bird is growing in this area. And the template is seen as successful enough to be used for the other Gunnison sage grouse populations in Colorado and Utah.
Any new development in this county is officially reviewed with an eye to sage grouse habitat. Recreationalists voluntarily stay away from sage grouse territory in the spring when Hartman Rocks beckons. Ranchers make decisions on how to work their land based on the needs of the bird. Developers and builders work to protect sage grouse habitat when laying out proposals. County commissioner Jonathan Houck told me the story of the county planning department working with an architect designing a house close to a sage grouse lek. When he was told of the situation the house layout was shifted, the driveway altered and even a bathroom window moved so light would not potentially disturb the bird’s nests early in the mornings during lekking season. The homeowners relished being a part of the change to help save the grouse. Instead of being tagged for compensatory mitigation by the feds, they embraced the idea of making changes that would help a species survive. That is the way to engage real accomplishment.
So about 5,000 breeding birds live in southwest Colorado and some of Utah. A whopping 88 percent live in Gunnison County and thanks to collaboration by a varied group, the population here seems to be in pretty good shape.
Gunnison County wildlife conservation coordinator Jim Cochran shared the latest Gunnison sage grouse population information from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. It shows that the bird population has grown from 2,880 in 1996 to 3,978 this year in the Gunnison Basin. That appears to be a substantial positive change. A 38 percent increase in 18 years looks pretty scientifically successful to me.
After Senator Michael Bennet convened a meeting of all the counties that have grouse and habitat, the proven programs developed in Gunnison County began to be exported to the satellite populations. And even some of the most ardent anti-government types have bought in to the idea of the voluntary measures. It is how things are done in the West. People come together to identify a problem and figure out ways to solve the issue.
But the feds apparently felt pressured by the environmental group WildEarth Guardians to make the listing. So the feds tried to split the baby by going with the “threatened” listing as opposed to the “endangered” classification. It would give them more flexibility with rules put in place to address the Gunnison sage grouse. Of course, neither side was happy with that decision.
Colorado officials had requested a delay in the Fish and Wildlife decision, saying more time was required to show the results of the progress that has been accomplished on a voluntary basis. But reports indicated that the agency wasn’t successful in negotiating for more time with the Guardians, which had brought the suit that led to a court-ordered deadline for the agency to make a November decision.
“The science is clear, this spectacular dancing bird is endangered and should be afforded the highest level of protection,” claimed Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “We can’t gamble on the survival of this bird with the voluntary or scientifically inadequate protections that could be allowed under a ‘threatened species’ designation.”
It appears the WildEarth Guardians will sue the feds for not going far enough and listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered.
Oh, and the state of Colorado is rattling the sabers about suing the feds as well for going too far and not really considering the science that has stabilized the population.
“We made a commitment, if ranchers, farmers and the oil and gas industry put in the work, and we see the success and benefits of that work, if the federal government is going to come in and overstep that work—we will oppose it,” Governor John Hickenlooper told the Denver Business Journal last week.
The Gunnison County commissioners decided Tuesday to be on board with that move. Commissioner Houck’s fear is that ranchers and landowners will throw up their hands and walk away from the voluntary process as a result of this decision. “They have done everything they could and been successful and they still get a poke in the eye,” he said. “I understand their feelings.”
So do I. When people as diverse as local cowboys, local bikers, developers and enviros come together to do everything possible to make a situation work and the big government bureaucrats and radical enviros come in to kick them in the teeth, it’s not a symptom of big government—it’s a symptom of stupid government.
This decision is, unfortunately, stupid government. Despite facile assurances from the U.S. FWS, this listing could negatively impact the economy and quality of life of most of us here by squeezing everyone from ranchers to recreationalists, developers to county officials.
It is a government decision that strengthens a perception of intrusive, mindless government bureaucrats making poor decisions from their big city offices while real people figure real stuff out. What are people to think when a community getting its hands dirty out in the sage brush looking at the numbers and doing everything possible to save a species has figured out a real answer and they still get a Big Brother saying it’s not good enough but not really saying why?
It’s enough to make me agree with Scott Tipton. I abhor stupid government…