The Obama administration has decided to formally list the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a decision expected to be derided by environmentalists as insufficient to save the bird and by government and industry leaders as an unnecessary disruption of economic development across its range in Colorado and Utah.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe signed the listing decision today to comply with a Nov. 12 deadline mandated under the terms of a sweeping 2011 agreement with WildEarth Guardians that stemmed from a federal lawsuit the group filed challenging a backlog of species awaiting final listing decisions.
Fish and Wildlife has scheduled a teleconference with reporters today to discuss the decision.
FWS first proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered in January 2013.
Included in today's listing decision is the establishment of 1.4 million acres of critical habitat for the bird, found primarily in west-southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. Formally designated critical habitat covers areas the service believes are critical to a species's recovery, and federal agencies must consult with FWS before authorizing any activity that could destroy or "adversely modify" any designated critical habitat.
In listing the bird as threatened, Fish and Wildlife rejected strenuous objections from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Colorado Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, and Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), all of whom argued that local government leaders, landowners and other stakeholders have collaborated to develop expanded grass-roots efforts to preserve the ground-dwelling bird and its habitat.
John Swartout, a senior Hickenlooper adviser who is handling sage grouse issues for the state, said this week that a decision to list the bird would likely prompt Colorado to file a legal challenge.
Fish and Wildlife said in a statement describing the decision that efforts by Colorado and Utah, "tribes, local communities, private landowners and other stakeholders to conserve the species and its habitat have helped reduce the threats to the bird sufficiently to give it the more flexibly protected status of 'threatened.'"
"In making the listing determination, the Service found that, thanks to conservation efforts led by Gunnison County and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Gunnison Basin population, which includes about 80 percent of the remaining birds, currently appears stable," the statement read. "However, six smaller, isolated satellite populations, stretching from the edge of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado to the edge of southeastern Utah, are much less robust, with populations as small as 16 birds and as large as 200. If anything happened to the core population, healthy satellite populations would be essential to enable the species to rebound."
The 1.4 million acres of critical habitat designations includes the satellite populations most at risk, according to the service.
Though such a rule is not included in today's decision, a threatened listing allows FWS to issue a special rule under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act that would provide for regulatory flexibility for oil and gas firms, farmers, and ranchers who enroll in approved, voluntary grouse conservation plans. It also could allow for the incidental killing or harming of grouse while carrying out conservation measures in the voluntary agreements.
Fish and Wildlife applied a special rule in its final decision in March to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened and not endangered, prompting an angry response from some of the same environmental groups involved in the Gunnison sage grouse agreement.
The service is expected to issue a draft 4(d) rule for the Gunnison grouse by early next year and finalize it by year's end.
"Such a rule may exempt from ESA restrictions a number of ongoing activities, including properly managed livestock and ranching activities; routine agricultural practices on existing row crops, hay fields, and pastures; habitat improvement or protection projects conducted under the federal 'Sage-Grouse Initiative' or 'Conservation Reserve Program'; and limited expansion of existing agricultural, residential and commercial facilities," the service said in the statement.
The service's decision is expected to anger environmentalists.
WildEarth Guardians and other environmental groups have argued the Gunnison grouse is in significant danger of extinction with fewer than 5,000 birds remaining, and facing myriad threats from increased oil and gas development, road building, and residential development.
A WildEarth Guardians official said earlier this week that the group would file a federal lawsuit challenging a threatened listing decision, arguing the best science points to the need for an endangered species listing.
Fish and Wildlife was required to decide whether to list the bird as threatened or endangered under the terms of the 2011 settlement agreement with WildEarth Guardians. Since then, FWS has requested three deadline extensions, all granted by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The court in May approved a six-month deadline extension that pushed the deadline to today (Greenwire, May 6).
In its court motion requesting the latest deadline extension, attorneys representing the Interior Department and Fish and Wildlife stated that the extension could lead to the service designating the grouse as threatened, and not endangered as proposed last year.
While the agencies continue "to diligently work on a final listing determination for the Gunnison sage-grouse," Interior and FWS stated in the court motion that "new information received during the public comment period and the peer-review process" over the proposed listing decision could lead the service to "conclude that the Gunnison sage-grouse is not presently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range (endangered), but that it is likely to become endangered throughout all or a significant portion of its range in the foreseeable future (threatened)."
The threatened listing decision moves the debate over the status of the Gunnison grouse nearer to a regulatory conclusion, if not a legal one.
FWS in late 2010 first ruled that the Gunnison sage grouse deserves federal protection, but it stopped short of placing the bird on the endangered species list because of a backlog of other worthy species.
Rather, FWS placed the grouse on its list of "candidate species," where regulators review the bird's status every year and make listing changes as warranted, prompting the lawsuits from environmental groups -- and ultimately the 2011 settlement with WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity to address the backlog.
In January 2013, FWS first proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse -- the smaller cousin of the greater sage grouse that covers a much larger 11-state range -- as endangered and announced that it intended to designate 1.7 million acres within the bird's range across 10 counties in southern Colorado and two counties in Utah as critical habitat for the bird.
Top Colorado leaders, including Udall, Bennet and Hickenlooper, have argued that local government and private landowner collaboration have preserved the ground-dwelling bird and its habitat.
Indeed, as the service said today, 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. Almost all the Gunnison grouse habitat in the Gunnison Basin is under some form of protection (Greenwire, Nov. 11).
The Bureau of Land Management partnered with Colorado as far back as 2005 to establish the Gunnison Sage-grouse Rangewide Conservation Plan, aimed at preserving the bird and its sagebrush steppe habitat. State and county officials also have worked with land trusts to purchase tens of thousands of acres of conservation easements, adopt county land-use restrictions and negotiate voluntary conservation agreements to protect the bird and its habitat.
The Gunnison sage grouse is much smaller than the greater sage grouse, which occupies a much larger range covering millions of acres of public, state and private lands across 11 Western states. FWS is evaluating the status of the greater sage grouse and must issue a final decision on the status of the bird by September 2015.
Federal, state and local government leaders have undertaken a massive effort to preserve the greater sage grouse and its sagebrush steppe habitat.
But some critics have expressed concerns that an ESA listing for the Gunnison sage grouse, which also has seen a significant effort by local leaders and landowners to preserve its habitat, could portend a likely listing for the greater sage grouse.
They also worry that listing the Gunnison grouse will discourage landowners and other private landowners from partnering with federal regulators on voluntary steps to preserve the greater sage grouse and its habitat.
A report last spring from the chief of the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service found that when FWS last year proposed listing as threatened a subpopulation of grouse found only in parts of California and Nevada, landowner participation in voluntary habitat protection and recovery programs "declined precipitously" (Greenwire, April 29).
Fish and Wildlife has since agreed to revisit its proposal to list the bi-state population, saying there is "substantial disagreement" over the science used to justify the proposed listing.
But Fish and Wildlife said in the statement today that the Gunnison "is a distinct species" and that the threatened listing "in no way predetermines a decision on the greater sage-grouse."