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Court goes against local sage grouse preservation efforts

Judge discounting local efforts?

By Mark Reaman

A ruling last week by a federal judge has put a kink in local efforts to protect the Gunnison sage grouse.

Gunnison County, the Gunnison Stockgrowers Association, the state of Colorado, the state of Utah and San Juan County (Utah) lost their case in federal district court last week when a judge ruled that the Gunnison sage grouse should stay on the endangered species list as “threatened.” No decision has yet been made whether or not to appeal the ruling. Being listed as “threatened” more severly restricts what can be done on sage grouse habitat and could negatively impact things like local ranching operations.

“I’m disappointed in the decision,” admitted Gunnison County commissioner Jonathan Houck. “It seems to me that some of the arguments we made were glossed over. We need to sit down with our partners and discuss next steps.”

At issue is the degree of protection required to ensure the species‘ long-term survival. In 2014 the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service added the Gunnison sage grouse to the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and designated 1.4 million acres in Colorado and Utah as “critical habitat” for the bird. U.S. District Court Judge Christine Arguello found that the decision to list the bird as threatened and designate land as its critical habitat “was not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, without observance of the required procedures, or otherwise contrary to the law.”

The plaintiffs in the case were disappointed with the ruling given the amount of time, effort and money spent over the last several decades to protect the birds.

Among the judge’s findings was that the Gunnison County construction review process for proposals in or near sage grouse habitat includes mitigation measures for habitat loss and plans for habitat enhancement. “But it appears the review process merely reduces the impacts of human development; it does not prevent all human development in the habitat range or mitigate habitat loss when human development is necessary. All of these are critical, reasonable and supported concerns of the Service.”

Judge Arguello also upheld the rationale of the Fish and Wildlife Service that while the Gunnison Basin efforts to protect the bird had made great strides and have been a net benefit for the sage grouse, they were voluntary in nature and that was not providing enough protection.

“She didn’t seem to acknowledge the amount of successful effort that has gone into Gunnison sage grouse preservation,” said Houck. “Whether we appeal is a bridge that hasn’t been crossed at all yet.”

According to the Associated Press, environmental groups that intervened in the case said they were happy. “We’re relieved that desperately needed protection for these unique birds will stand,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Houck said the ramifications of the ruling could end up starting a domino effect that impacts not just the bird but things like local ranching. “I think we will continue our land use review with the sage grouse,” he said. “It is something we are committed to. There is a commitment to continued stewardship and this community supports being a good steward and taking care of the bird because it takes care of us. The restrictions that are good for them are also benefits to the community. Protecting the bird is part of the values people here have. What we have done supports not just the Gunnison Sage Grouse but our values.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service said only about 4,700 Gunnison sage grouse remained in 2014 when it was listed as threatened, and put the number at 5,000 in 2017. Some environmental groups say the number is much smaller now. The Gunnison sage grouse is related to the larger and more numerous greater sage grouse.

The county commissioners will discuss whether or not to appeal the ruling at an upcoming meeting.

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