Department of Interior says greater sage-grouse listing not warranted

What’s to come of the Gunnison sage-grouse?

By Adam Broderick

U.S. Interior secretary Sally Jewell announced Tuesday, September 22, that the greater sage-grouse does not warrant listing as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Jewell cited unprecedented land conservation efforts by local stakeholders that have significantly reduced threats to the bird.

The announcement does not affect the current status of the Gunnison sage-grouse as threatened, which is currently being challenged in court by Gunnison County. But local officials are still keeping a watch on Tuesday’s decision because it closely aligns with the argument they are making regarding the Gunnison sage-grouse.

Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the Gunnison sage-grouse as a threatened species under the ESA. The greater sage-grouse, a similar but slightly different species, was under consideration as well and had a September 30th deadline for its listing decision by FWS. The greater sage-grouse exists in 11 Western states and a threatened listing would have hugely impacted agriculture and energy development, so that case became more visible on the national radar.

The Gunnison sage-grouse, however, exists in only two states and although the effects of a threatened listing would mostly be felt by ranchers and landowners in Colorado and Utah, those effects would be powerful.

The Gunnison sage-grouse is a sub-species of the greater sage-grouse found south of the Colorado River in Colorado and Utah. It is about a third the size of the greater sage-grouse, and males have more distinctive white patterns on their tail feathers than male greater sage-grouse. Like the greater, Gunnison sage-grouse males also put on a unique and elaborate display to attract females.

When the FWS listed the Gunnison sage-grouse as threatened last year, county officials said the decision lacked accurate information based on the best available science and that the FWS did not follow its own protocols in their decision making process.

County officials also believe the FWS “improperly designated critical habitat” for the bird, land that county officials say has already undergone extensive protective and rehabilitative efforts that cost the state of Colorado and Gunnison County close to $40 million.

The bird’s population has grown significantly in recent years to numbers that show the bird does not face as strong a threat as the FWS determined, so the FWS intervention caused uproar among local ranchers, landowners, politicians and other stakeholders.

Tuesday’s decision to not list the greater sage-grouse is seen by many as an example of the federal government acknowledging that different stakeholders, not just government agencies, could find their own solution to protect the bird and its habitat.

Eric Holst, senior director of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a press release, “Today’s ‘not warranted’ decision sends a strong signal that investments in conservation are making a difference and provide the catalyst for a different kind of politics.”

On a local level, officials say it’s too early to know if the announcement will affect the current status of the Gunnison sage-grouse but they are still paying attention with interest. “What it does is potentially put the Gunnison sage-grouse threatened listing back in the spotlight,” said commissioner Jonathan Houck, also on the Gunnison Basin Sage-grouse Strategic Committee. “Whether this puts us in a better or worse position to argue our case I cannot say, but our opinion is the rule needs to be withdrawn.”

County attorney David Baumgarten told the Crested Butte News, “It is premature to state whether or how, if at all, the decision today regarding the greater sage-grouse might impact future proceedings regarding the Gunnison sage-grouse.”

Gunnison County and the state will continue with the lawsuit against the FWS over the Gunnison sage-grouse listing decision. The county’s intent is to overturn the current “threatened” listing and to ultimately obtain a determination that a listing is not warranted, as happened on Tuesday with the greater sage-grouse, and that lands need not be identified by the federal government as “critical habitat.”

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