TELLURIDE – The Gunnison Sage-grouse, a local bird species found only in southwestern Colorado and extreme southeastern Utah, should receive protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, but it won’t just yet.
That’s the decision reached by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and announced earlier this week as the agency published its comprehensive status review – known as a 12-month finding – in the Federal Register. The 116-page finding determined that although the sage brush-dwelling bird, whose remaining habitat is estimated to represent 10 percent of its native range, should be listed under the ESA, it will have to take a back seat to other species with higher priorities for the time being because there just isn’t enough money to immediately list every species in need of it.
“We will develop a proposed rule to list this species as our priorities allow. We will make any determination on critical habitat during development of the proposed listing rule,” the agency wrote it its finding.
In short, “When we get money it will be done,” said F.W.S. Western Colorado Field Supervisor Al Pfister, who was uncertain when that might be.
“I don’t know if it's fiscal year 2011 or fiscal year 2012,” he said.
“I kind of thought it might be this [outcome],” said a somewhat disappointed Leigh Robertson, coordinator of the San Miguel Basin Gunnison Sage-grouse Working Group.
“It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be listed given how few birds there are left,” she continued, later noting that the designation leaves the bird in a Limbo where its need for protection is recognized, yet protection remains elusive.
“The candidate status doesn’t give it any particular legal status under the ESA,” confirmed Pfister.
The decision comes four years after the agency first denied federal protection to the Gunnison Sage-grouse as a result of what an investigation later revealed was political interference by Bush administration officials with federal biologists’ decision-making for multiple endangered species.
In response to a lawsuit subsequently filed by San Miguel County and a number of conservation groups, the agency filed notice in federal court in March 2009 that it would reconsider its 2006 decision. It was later granted an extension until this Sept. 15 to make its finding.
In its determination, the F.W.S. gave the Gunnison Sage-grouse a listing priority number of two. This is assigned to species with high magnitude threats that are imminent. It is the highest category available for a species.
“These threats include the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat; predation; the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and other natural or man-made factors affecting its continued existence,” the agency wrote.
The new designation actually returns the bird to the same status it held in 2003, when it was elevated from the listing priority number of five, which it was given when the agency first designated the bird as a candidate species in 2000. A listing priority of five is assigned to species with high magnitude threats considered non-imminent.
According to Pfister there are 53 other species with a listing priority number of two on the agency’s national list, but they will not necessarily be handled in the order they were added.
While once spread throughout the Southwest, today there are an estimated 4,000 breeding Gunnison Sage-grouse in seven populations. The core population is located in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin where it numbers about 3,000 and represents the best opportunity for long-term conservation of the species.
Other Colorado groups include the San Miguel Basin, Monticello-Dove Creek, Pinon Mesa, Crawford, Cerro Summit-Cimarron-Sims Mesa, and Poncha Pass populations.
A total of 123 Gunnison Sage-grouse are now estimated to remain in the San Miguel Basin, where Colorado Division of Wildlife researchers counted 25 males on 11 known breeding areas, called leks, during their annual spring count of the birds.
The numbers represented the fifth straight year of local population declines since 2006. That year researchers counted 77 males followed by 66, 44 and 33 in 2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively. Counts of females are less reliable because they are so well camouflaged.
In the absence of federal protection, Robertson said her group might ask the San Miguel County commissioners to consider adopting stricter land use regulations.
Current regulations “seem a bit loose,” she said, noting that the existing land use guidelines make recommendations designed to protect grouse habitat, but not hard and fast requirements.
Robertson lauded the current county commissioners for working hard to protect the grouse, but without stricter guidelines “that could change with a different group of commissioners,” she said.