The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced at the start of 2013 that the Gunnison sage-grouse is in danger of extinction. Recommending that the species be listed as endangered, the U.S.F.W. proposed listing 1.7 million acres of land in western Colorado and eastern Utah as designated critical habitat for the bird, under the Endangered Species Act. “The Gunnison population remains relatively stable but the six satellite populations have been declining in recent years,” U.S.F.W. Western Colorado Supervisor Patty Gelatt said after the Jan. 10 announcement. “Sage-grouse need these large-scale landscapes of contiguous habitat, and when you start to fragment those areas, it’s a threat to the species.”
The large, ground-nesting bird known for elaborate courtship displays on its breeding grounds now occupies just seven percent of its historic range. U.S.F.W. officials say there are approximately 5,000 breeding birds remaining, in various sagebrush habitats, in and around the Gunnison Basin and southeastern Utah.
With the public comment period extending over the year, elected officials and staff in Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties spent time drafting and approving comments of their own. Concerned at the prospect of 1.7 million acres of land being designated as crucial habitat, 11 county governments in the region, including Montrose, San Miguel and Ouray counties, pledged in March to work together to increase the species’ population, and agreed to a memorandum of understanding intended to “ensure that reasonable and adequate work is being conducted, and shall continue to be conducted to reach the goal of increasing the current abundance, viability and vitality of Gunnison sage-grouse and their habitat.”
“I think this memorandum of understanding will be beneficial to all the counties that are signatories to it from a standpoint to hopefully averting an endangered species listing,” Montrose County Commissioner David White said in March. “Such a listing for the Gunnison sage-grouse will destroy the economies of several counties, and significantly impact Montrose County, given there can be no ground disturbance on what has been identified as critical habitat.”
Throughout the year, the Montrose Commissioners came out vehemently opposed to U.S.F.W.’s proposed endangered species listing for the bird, stating in April their belief that the U.S.F.W.’s population statistics are inaccurate. Montrose County Government Affairs Director Jon Waschbusch gave a brief summary of the county’s comments before they were approved.
“The primary issue is that the Gunnison sage-grouse population is stable and does not appear to be in danger of extinction,” Waschbusch said, adding that 88.3 percent of the species lives in the Gunnison Basin. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Waschbusch said, that Gunnison Basin population “is stable and increasing.”
“In light of that population stability, the Fish and Wildlife assessments are overstated,” he said.
But with the MOU in place, the potential listing may have impacted a controversial gravel pit project proposed south of Montrose. Located on potential critical habitat, the gravel-pit project developer and the commissioners were forced to consider what would happen if the gravel pit was approved, and they eventually denied the special permit for the gravel pit. While there were multiple reasons cited in the denial, the potential sage-grouse designation undoubtedly played into the decision.
The Montrose commissioners approved Gunnison sage-grouse regulations of their own to minimize potential development’s impact on the beleaguered bird.
Montrose County was not the only county in the region opposed to the listing. At a meeting of the Ouray County Commissioners in March both the MOU and a letter drafted by Ouray County Attorney Martha Whitmore opposing the listing and the designation of critical habitat in Ouray County were approved.
San Miguel County is part of the San Miguel Basin Gunnison Sage-Grouse Working group’s efforts to “ensure a thriving population of Gunnison sage-grouse in a healthy, conserved sagebrush ecosystem while helping to ensure a sustainable community in the San Miguel Basin.”
U.S.F.W. announced in July a six-month extension on the issue. “We certainly understand a listing has consequences,” U.S.F.W. Director Dan Ashe said in July, at their meeting in Gunnison.