TELLURIDE – San Miguel County, joined by local conservation group Sheep Mountain Alliance and a coalition of seven other concerned environmental organizations, has filed an agreement in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., that settles their lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service challenging its 2006 decision not to list the Gunnison Sage-grouse as an endangered species.
Although the USFWS in late March filed notice in federal court that it would reconsider its earlier decision to deny federal protection to the bird, the settlement agreement commits the agency to a court-ordered deadline to prepare a new listing decision by June 30, 2010.
“They basically pushed the reset button,” said Amy Atwood, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They’re going to make that decision over again.”
Atwood said that the agreement and commitment had to be in place in order for the coalition, which also included Audubon, the Black Canyon Audubon Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Native Ecosystems, the Larch Company, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and WildEarth Guardians, to dismiss its lawsuit.
"We are eager to secure protection for the Gunnison Sage-grouse as soon as possible,” San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May stated in a press release.
“Long-term viability of the species is unquestionably at risk now, and every additional delay decreases the likelihood of full recovery," she continued.
In its March filing the USFWS wrote that its reconsideration was in response to an investigative report filed by the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior last December. That report concluded that the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Julie MacDonald, and other Bush administration officials interfered with federal biologists’ decision-making for multiple endangered species, including the Gunnison Sage-grouse.
The settlement comes on the heels of discouraging findings from counts at 11 known breeding grounds, called leks, conducted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in the San Miguel Basin this past spring.
Researchers saw 33 males strutting and displaying fans of pointy tail feathers on the leks. Eighteen males were seen on the Miramonte Lek, home to the basin’s core Gunnison Sage-grouse population.
The numbers represent a steady decrease from the 44, 66 and 77 males counted in 2008, 2007 and 2006 respectively. Counts of females are less reliable because they remain well camouflaged in their preferred habitat of large sagebrush expanses with diverse grasses and forbs.
Audubon has identified Gunnison Sage-grouse as among the 10 most endangered birds in the United States. The Endangered Species Coalition also released a report last December listing it as one of the most imperiled species in the country.
In March Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released a report that found that western deserts and grasslands – home to Gunnison Sage-grouse and other sensitive species – are among the most degraded habitats in the country.
Today, the grouse's habitat is estimated to be about 90 percent smaller than its native range that once spread throughout New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, Colorado and Utah.
Only an estimated 4,000 breeding individuals are known to exist.
"We are keen to have federal protections in place, to protect not only this species in serious decline but also an important native landscape of the West that serves as its habitat," said Hilary White, director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance.
The bird’s long-term decline is attributed to livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, motorized recreation, and urbanization.
At the completion of its review the USFWS will make one of three standard determinations: warranted for protection, warranted for protection but precluded, or not warranted for protection.
Originally USFWS biologists found that the Gunnison Sage-grouse was warranted for federal protection and drafted a proposed rule to that effect, however it changed that finding as a result of political interference.
“There was a draft that we had put together close to five years ago,” confirmed USFWS Western Colorado Field Supervisor Al Pfister.
If the agency again determines that the bird should be protected based on current information it will continue its review before finalizing its decision next June. During that time a 60-day public comment period will be announced, which Pfister estimated could take place this fall.
A warranted but precluded finding would mean that the agency believed the bird should be protected, but not before other species with higher priority.
Given this outcome the agency would pursue the listing as funding became available.
Atwood likened it to a “bureaucratic purgatory.”
Asked whether she believed the Gunnison Sage-grouse would be warranted for protection this time around, “We’ll have to see what they do but we’re hopeful,” she said.