County mobilizing to prevent Gunnison sage grouse listing

Filed for an extension of the federal comment period

Gunnison County has formally asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend the comment periods for the listing of the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered and the designation of more than 1.7 million acres of critical habitat.



County attorney David Baumgarten filed the request, citing the “voluminous” record, which contains 14,260 pages and 361 academic and scientific studies, and the complexity of each rule. The filing also cites the fact that some materials have not yet been made available to the county.
The decision, approved by the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, February 19, came after the commissioners reviewed the county’s in-progress comments. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the proposed rules, the news came as a disappointment to many local leaders who’ve worked hard to protect the species and prevent the listing—and it shows in the draft.
Several times, the draft comments state that the proposed rule failed to take into account a pertinent piece of information, including information that suggests the “Gunnison Basin Population of Gunnison Sage Grouse is Healthy and Robust,” that the agency has failed to “Consider a ‘Distinct Population Segment’ Which Does Not Require Protection Under the ESA”, and that the agency has failed to “Credit Existing and Reasonably Anticipated Conservation Activities.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Baumgarten explained to the commissioners that the draft comments have been informed by county-wide input, and said, “We’ve tried to think of 10 to 15 different ways to come to the same point, the point being that the bird in the Gunnison Basin is a stronghold population and that it’s a stronghold population based to a very large degree on the unique performance of this community over a long period of time.”
In attempting to prevent a listing, the county will suggest that the conservation measures put in place in the Gunnison Basin could be replicated elsewhere. It may also be possible to make the argument that the population in the Gunnison Basin is genetically different from other populations and geographically separate.
The approach is working for the commissioners. Commissioner Phil Chamberland said, “I like the format and the process it’s developing in… You are capturing what needs to be said.”
In addition to filing for an extension of the public comment period, the county has also legally joined forces with the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association. On Tuesday, February 12, the county and the stockgrowers signed a joint defense agreement that allows them to coordinate efforts to prevent the listing and keep any information shared between them confidential.
At that meeting, deputy county attorney Art Trezise told the commissioners that the county had already benefited from input from the Stockgrowers Association attorney Debra Freeman, who has expertise in the Endangered Species Act.
“As you know,” said Trezise, “there’s been some suggestion that a lot of the science behind this is not valid. So we’re trying to pursue and determine what’s good science and what isn’t, but [Freeman] has the ability to say this is an argument that’s worth making, this is an argument that is not worth making.”
While the county has not ruled out signing similar agreements with other stakeholders, for now they are doing so only with the stockgrowers. “One of the issues is that this is a short timeframe to respond and if we get too many folks with joint representation we’re going to lose the ability to move quickly,” Trezise said.
At this point, according to the county attorney’s office, it’s not clear when the county will learn whether the Fish and Wildlife Service will grant an extension of the public comment period. So it’s full steam ahead in compiling comments, which are due on or before March 13.

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