Gunnison sage grouse process subject of federal investigation

Gunnison prairie dog also getting fresh look

The U.S. Department of Interior will reconsider federally designating several declining wildlife species as “threatened” or “endangered,” including the Gunnison sage grouse and Gunnison’s prairie dog.



In a November 30 letter, Inspector General Earl Devaney has promised U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that his office will investigate more than a dozen Department of Interior decisions on endangered-species protections.
In the Rocky Mountain region, the new investigation will specifically address the decisions to withhold Endangered Species Act protections to the Greater sage grouse, the Gunnison sage grouse, and Gunnison’s prairie dog.
In November, the Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy listed the Gunnison sage grouse and Greater sage grouse on their “WatchList” for the most endangered and sensitive bird species in North America.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already acknowledged that Julie MacDonald, a Bush appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, wrongly overturned eight decisions on protections for endangered species, but Wyden’s request expands the inquiry. Several conservation groups have contested the decisions by the since-ousted official in court.
The decision not to list the two local species was overseen by MacDonald. An Inspector General report found that MacDonald “has been heavily involved in editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endangered Species Program’s scientific reports from the field.”
According to the Office of Inspector General, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists were prepared to list the Gunnison sage grouse as “endangered” and recommend designation of critical habitat for the species in summer 2006. The biologists had even drafted media releases to announce the proposed Endangered Species Act listing for the rare bird. However, according to an Inspector General investigation, the listing was delayed and then reversed by MacDonald and other Washington Department of the Interior officials.
Documents obtained by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that MacDonald became involved after receiving telephone calls concerning the proposed listing, including one from then-Colorado Governor Bill Owens, the Republican predecessor of current Governor Bill Ritter.
The documents show that MacDonald’s Washington office was extensively involved in redrafting the new “not warranted” listing determination, demanding extensive edits to the former listing proposal. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists refuted the changes made by MacDonald and her office, but were rebuffed, documents show.
Western State College Thorton Chair Pat Magee, a specialist in sagebrush habitat, said the Gunnison sage grouse meets the biological criteria to be considered an endangered species. He says the federal designation could aid the bird’s recovery.
“I believe the endangered species act is an important tool to assist in species recovery,” he said. “The Gunnison sage grouse can use all the tools available,” he added.
Dr. Jessica Young, also a biologist at Western State, and longtime member of the Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group, said her group has been working to restore the Gunnison area grouse population since 1995.
The group is comprised of 60 to 70 individuals with a stake in sage grouse protection ranging from ranchers and environmental groups to governmental agency representatives and scientists. Young says the group has undertaken more than 200 conservation measures to help local grouse populations.
“I have no doubt that local efforts have helped stabilize the population,” Young said. However, she said, recent drought years have been tough on recovery efforts.
Young said there is not consensus among working group members whether the grouse should be listed as endangered.
“Some members feel that the listing would be a good tool for recovery efforts and others feel the added regulation would be a detriment,” she said.
Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign, one of the litigants requesting a remand of the U.S. Department of Interior decision not to list the Gunnison sage grouse, said his group’s suit was wending its way through the legal process. But he noted that an Idaho court had recently ruled that MacDonald and her office improperly meddled in the decision not to list the Greater sage grouse.
“If the ruling on the Greater sage grouse is any indication, the court may remand the decision on the Gunnison sage grouse based on science and not on politics—which is what we’re asking,” Salvo said.
Like the Gunnison sage grouse, the Gunnison’s prairie dog appeared to be slated for federal listing as an endangered species based on a determination by Fish and Wildlife Service biologists from the Mountain-Prairie Regional Office (Region 6). However, in response to a FIOA request from the environmental group, Forest Guardians, several documents were uncovered that show the office was forced to change its positive finding to a negative one due to explicit orders from MacDonald.
Forest Guardian spokeswoman Dr. Nicole Rosmarino said that her group settled a lawsuit with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The court’s decision requires the agency to issue a new ruling by February 2008 as to whether Gunnison’s prairie dog deserves federal protection.
Rosmarino noted that the prairie dog is a keystone species—meaning that the species is integral in sustaining ecosystems. “Julie MacDonald’s interference with listing decisions affected whole ecosystems,” she said.
Although Rosmarino says all bets are off as to whether the FWS under the Bush Administration will protect the Gunnison’s prairie dog, she says Forest Guardians will continue to fight for the federal listing.
“The Gunnison’s prairie dog warrants a positive designation,” she said. “If the FWS denies it protection, we’ll take them right back to court.”
The U.S Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on this article.

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