Public Comment Period for Designation Extended
WESTERN SAN JUANS – The writing is on the wall; the Gunnison sage grouse is likely headed toward being listed as a ‘threatened’ species under the Endangered Species Act. County commissioners from Ouray, San Miguel and Montrose counties all emerged with this conclusion following a meeting at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison with the United States Fish and Wildlife Services Director Dan Ashe on Tuesday this week.
Ashe didn’t come right out and say so publicly, but many of the comments he made at Tuesday’s meeting appeared to be laying the groundwork for such a designation.
“We certainly understand a listing has consequences,” he told the representatives attending the meeting from 11 counties throughout southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah that would be affected by the designation.
Some of these counties have been working collaboratively for years to improve conditions for the Gunnison sage grouse by means of regulatory and incentive-based conservation efforts, in order to boost the species’ chances of survival while avoiding the federal listing.
But, Ashe stressed, federal regulations “require us to make a decision based on status and threats. We can’t consider anything else. As we go forward, the most important thing is to focus on is the status of the species and nature of threats to the species.”
And the simple fact of the matter is, the “status” of the Gunnison sage grouse is that there are not very many of the birds left. The large, ground-nesting species known for its elaborate courtship displays on its breeding grounds now occupies only seven percent of its historic range, which has been gobbled up by development, and altered by a changing climate. Termed the “canary species of the West” by some wildlife conservation groups, fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse are known to exist today. More than 80 percent of these live in their namesake Gunnison County, where the population is actually making a modest comeback thanks to diligent conservation efforts there over the past two decades.
Scattered smaller “satellite” populations live in surrounding counties as well as across the border in Utah. To thrive, they have very specific habitat requirements, including dense sagebrush cover, standing water, and areas called “leks” (open prairie clearings) where competitive male courtship rituals take place every spring.
The bird has been eyed as a potential candidate for the endangered species designation at the federal level since the 1990s. In September 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the species on the Endangered Species Act Candidate list. The bird has already received several protective designations at the state and federal level, including:
• Colorado Division of Wildlife Species of Concern
• Forest Service Sensitive Species
• BLM Sensitive Species in Colorado
• Utah Conservation Agreement Species
Fish and Wildlife had set out to make a final determination whether the Gunnison sage grouse should be listed as threatened or endangered by September 2013, but this week it announced a six-month extension for a final decision on a proposed rule to provide Endangered Species Act protection for the Gunnison sage grouse and a proposed rule that would designate 1.7 million acres of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah as critical habitat for the bird under the Act.
The extension is in response to additional scientific information recently received from Gunnison County which has developed a habitat designation tool to more scientifically identify what is viable sage grouse habitat and what is not.
Publication of the announcement reopens the public comment period on the proposed rules for 45 days until early September.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Ashe stressed that there is a big difference between the designations of threatened and endangered. “If a species is endangered, all of the restrictions in the law apply, and we don’t have any flexibility. If a species is threatened, the law allows us to tailor the regulatory restrictions,” he said.
Nevertheless, many county officials maintained that locally initiated conservation efforts they have collaboratively undertaken to protect the Gunnison sage grouse are more effective than a potential listing at the federal level as threatened or endangered, and that a listing of any sort could harm their economic viability and violate private property rights.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams of Utah pointed out that although his county is the biggest in the state of Utah, only 8 percent of its land is private property, and that 35 percent of that private property is being proposed for critical habitat for the Gunnison Sage Grouse. “I think I need to say on [the private property owners’ behalf] that they are very, very, very concerned about what will happen to their private property rights if their property is listed as critical habitat,” Adams said. If the listing of critical habitat encroaches on efforts for people to make a living off their land through agriculture and extractive industries, he said, it will weaken the county’s tax base and ultimately, its ability to offer services.
Most of the counties that were represented at Tuesday’s meeting are signatories to a Conservation Agreement regarding the Gunnison Sage Grouse, penned by Gunnison County officials, which spells out ways that local communities can continue to protect the bird’s habitat without succumbing to an unwieldy federal listing and the accompanying designation of critical habitat.
The goal is to implement an effective strategy and programs which will preclude the need to list the Gunnison sage grouse or at a minimum demonstrate the willingness of the signatory counties to preserve and protect habitat which will lessen the impact if listing does occur.
Ashe praised the efforts that the counties have undertaken thus far to conserve the species and stressed his agency’s desire to make a scientifically based decision regarding its potential listing. “I heard a lot that made me feel good about what you are doing, and I am hopeful we are moving in a very positive direction in regard to this species,” he said. “Our job is not to add something to a list; our job is to conserve a species. Right now the species is not listed, and all of you as local officials are responsible for that.”
However, he added, “On the hypothetical that the bird is listed, along with 1,400 other species, life goes on. I don’t want to give the sense of that there are no consequences, but life goes on. Oil and gas, agriculture, transportation, utilities, they all work around endangered species every day and the USFWS is quite adept at working with industries,” he said. “We have many tools, we have flexibility, especially where there is good intention. Clearly you are doing a lot of work benefitting the species.”
Ashe encouraged counties to submit comments in regard to critical habitat designation during the newly extended comment period. “We can make exclusions. We can consider things other than the science. We can consider social and cultural aspects. There are many things we can consider.”
Anyone wishing to submit comments may do so by mail or electronically:Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. In the search box, enter the appropriate Docket No: Docket No. FWS-R6-ES-2012-0108 for the proposed endangered status for Gunnison sage-grouse; or Docket No. FWS-R6- ES-2011-0111 for the proposed designation of critical habitat for Gunnison sagegrouse.Then, in the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, check on the Proposed Rules link to locate the proposed rule. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!” The reopened public comment period will end on Sept. 3, 2013.