ENDANGERED SPECIES

Tomorrow's listing decision for Gunnison grouse will ruffle feathers

A swaggering, brown bird is causing major political angst for the Obama administration, which must decide this week whether to protect it under the Endangered Species Act.

By court order, the Fish and Wildlife Service has until tomorrow to decide whether to finalize its January 2013 proposal to list the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered. Agency scientists could also downgrade the bird's listing to threatened or decide it no longer needs federal protections.

The agency will also resolve whether to finalize a proposed 1.7 million acres of critical habitat in western Colorado and southeast Utah deemed essential for the grouse's recovery.

One thing's for sure: The decision will disappoint many and could end up in federal court.

The Gunnison sage grouse -- not to be confused with the greater sage grouse that roams 11 Western states -- numbers fewer than 5,000 birds, about 80 percent of which reside in the Gunnison Basin of western Colorado with six other scattered satellite populations in western Colorado and southeast Utah.

The flamboyant fowl is known for its elaborate mating dance each spring. The males strut and spar with one another, vocalizing by popping a pair of bright yellow air sacs on their chests.

But they're under siege from new housing developments, roads, power lines, and oil and gas development, according to Fish and Wildlife. The grouse, which now occupies about 7 percent of its historical range south of the Colorado River, has been a candidate for ESA protections since 2000 and is viewed by environmentalists as one of the most endangered birds in North America.

A pair of massive legal settlements with environmental groups in 2011 and court-approved extensions gave FWS until tomorrow to decide the bird's ultimate fate. It's unclear whether FWS will publicize its decision tomorrow or simply send it to the Federal Register.

"All indications are they're going to list it," said John Swartout, rural policy and outreach director for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who narrowly won re-election last week.

Whether FWS will list the bird as endangered or threatened is anyone's guess. The agency in May told a federal court that "new information" suggests the bird may only be threatened and that it was preparing a special "4(d)" rule that relaxes some restrictions of ESA. Such rules are reserved only for threatened listings.

State scientists insist the bird does not warrant listing at all, Swartout said. Hickenlooper has pledged to challenge a listing in federal court.

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Colorado's bipartisan congressional delegation has previously urged FWS to delay its decision, touting the investment of $30 million in public and private funds to preserve grouse habitat.

'Thrown under the bus'

The Gunnison Basin population, centered in Gunnison, Colo., has remained stable over the past dozen years thanks to strict curbs on residential development and dozens of conservation easements to protect private ranchlands from future development. About 97 percent of grouse lands in the Gunnison Basin are under some form of protection, Swartout said.

Swartout led grouse conservation efforts more than a decade ago for former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R). Coloradans were told back then that if they saved the Gunnison Basin population, the grouse would be fine, Swartout said. Now the Obama administration is moving the goalposts, he said.

Tomorrow's listing could disillusion landowners and businesses across the West who are working to stave off a listing of greater sage grouse, he said.

"Colorado built these relationships with agriculture and livestock over 25 years," Swartout said. "If Gunnison gets thrown under the bus, who's going to work with us on greater sage grouse?"

But Fish and Wildlife's listing decision is bound by science, not political or economic expediency. If the grouse's habitat is still threatened by destruction and fragmentation -- and if there are inadequate regulations to stop it -- agency scientists have no choice.

In March, the agency listed the lesser prairie chicken in the southern Great Plains as threatened, despite scores of energy companies having previously agreed to invest millions of dollars in voluntary conservation plans. Industry and landowners cried foul, saying they'd made financial sacrifices under the assumption that a listing would be withdrawn.

A Gunnison listing "is going to send a sign to every single local effort across the U.S. that it doesn't matter what you do -- they're still going to list the species," said Paula Swenson, chairwoman of the Gunnison County Board of Commissioners. "Never in the history of the Endangered Species Act has the Fish and Wildlife seen these kinds of efforts."

Since 2006, every home or road in the county has been screened by a county biologist, Jim Cochran, to ensure it does not disturb the grouse, she said. Windows have been reoriented to block light from grouse leks, or breeding grounds, and fences have been built to contain domestic dogs. Swenson said she needed a letter of approval to build a small shed on her property.

A federal listing could harm ranchers, a key cog in the Gunnison economy who depend on permits to graze cattle on federal lands, Swenson said. About 41 percent of grouse habitat is on private lands.

It would also anger Western oil and gas drillers. Groups including the Western Energy Alliance, Independent Petroleum Association of America and American Petroleum Institute argued in a letter to FWS a year ago that the agency's proposed 1.7 million acres of critical habitat for Gunnison grouse could result in up to hundreds of millions of dollars in economic harm in Colorado.

FWS has estimated that in a "worst case scenario," a listing and critical habitat designation would cost $1.2 million annually.

Still, a listing would give Republican and industry critics fresh ammunition in a state likely to be a huge presidential battleground in 2016.

'An emergency room situation'

The Gunnison grouse is clinging to a small fraction of the 14 million acres of sagebrush it once roamed in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

It continues to suffer the loss, degradation and fragmentation of its habitat due mainly to residential, exurban and commercial development and related roads and power lines, even in its core Gunnison populations, FWS said.

In southwestern Colorado, roughly one-fifth of sage brush was destroyed between 1958 and 1993, and more than one-third of studied sagebrush tracts were fragmented, FWS found.

In addition, Gunnison County's population is expected to double by midcentury, a boom that will add roughly 7,000 new houses, FWS predicts.

While Gunnison County should be "highly commended" for curbing harmful development, surrounding counties may have done too little, too late, FWS said.

The San Miguel Basin and Monticello-Dove Creek populations of Gunnison sage grouse have each lost half their birds over the past dozen years, dropping to 172 birds and 142 birds, respectively, according to FWS. The Pinon Mesa population has dropped by two-thirds to 54 birds during that time frame.

The Poncha Pass population in Colorado's Saguache County counts 15 birds and a single lek, FWS said.

In comparison, the greater sage grouse -- another candidate species due for a listing decision next September -- is believed to number in the hundreds of thousands.

"What we're talking about are really dire circumstances, an emergency room situation for this species," said Amy Atwood, a senior attorney for the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of the two groups whose settlements with FWS set this week's listing deadline. "The biggest threat to the Gunnison sage grouse is the foot-dragging we've seen for the past 14 years."

Fish and Wildlife has asked for four delays to the listing process since 2011, a sign of how difficult the decision might be.

Only the blanket protection of ESA will rescue the bird, Atwood said. Environmentalists have argued that a listing could also free up additional funding for sage grouse research, monitoring and project implementation.

Asked whether CBD would consider a lawsuit if the listing is withdrawn, Atwood said, "You betcha."

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email: ptaylor@eenews.net

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