Senior Colorado Grouse Scientist, Conservationists Challenge Inadequate Gunnison Sage-Grouse Protections
'Threatened' status undermines imperiled birds' survival and recovery
Dr. Clait Braun, Retired Colorado Division of Wildlife Sage Grouse Research Leader, (520) 529-4614
Todd Tucci, Senior Attorney, Advocates for the West, (208) 724-2142
DENVER– The State of Colorado’s former Avian Research Leader for sage-grouse joined conservation group WildEarth Guardians today in challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) failure to adequately protect the imperiled Gunnison sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Despite clear ongoing threats to the bird’s survival, in November 2014, the Service designated Gunnison sage-grouse as a ‘threatened’ species, rather than the more protective ‘endangered’ species designation the agency proposed in January 2013 and announced plans to develop a special rule that would allow the very destructive activities most threatening the bird to continue. The Service also significantly reduced the area protected as ‘critical habitat’ for the dancing birds by over 250,000 acres between the proposed and final rules.
Dr. Clait Braun led the State of Colorado’s efforts on Gunnison sage grouse research and conservation between 1973 and mid-1999 The author of 300+ peer reviewed studies, and the scientist who first recognized that Gunnison sage-grouse is a distinct species, he is a widely recognized expert on Gunnison sage-grouse biology. “Over 10 years, I watched the disappearance of the Gunnison sage-grouse from Eagle, Garfield, Montezuma, and Ouray counties as the bird’s habitat became progressively more degraded and fragmented and state and local governments did nothing,” said Dr. Braun. “Today, six of the seven populations of this bird are about to disappear, and the largest remaining population, in the Gunnison Basin, is declining and still faces major threats. From a scientific perspective, we must stop dithering and impose, real, enforceable protections for the bird today.”
Between the proposed endangered listing in January 2013 and the reduced-protection threatened listing in December 2014, the Gunnison Basin population dropped from 4,082 to 3,978 birds, state and local governments failed to adopt enforceable protections that address the threats facing the bird, and development and grazing continued to degrade the species’ habitat.
“After over a decade of waiting for local, state and federal agencies to follow the science and protect these charismatic birds and the sagebrush habitats they need to survive, we are acting to ensure political pressure from destructive industries and the State of Colorado does not drive this species to extinction,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “With fewer than 5,000 birds left, Gunnison sage-grouse require the strongest level of protection the Endangered Species Act offers.”
The listing comes after years of largely ineffectual efforts by local governments to address the conservation needs of the bird. As analyzed in a recent report, the measures, nearly all of which are voluntary and unenforceable, do not meet the requirements of the ESA, and fail to adequately address the multiple threats to the species.
“State and county governments have squandered opportunity after opportunity to enact the strong, enforceable habitat protections necessary to eliminate threats to Gunnison sage-grouse and their habitats,” said Dr. Braun.
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, where a judge will decide whether the federal agency’s decision to reduce the level of protection is supported by the best available science.
“The Endangered Species Act prohibits reliance on voluntary and speculative conservation measures in deciding whether to protect a species,” said Todd Tucci of Advocates for the West, an attorney representing WildEarth Guardians and Dr. Braun. ”Unfortunately, the Service has undermined the protections necessary to ensure the survival and recovery of Gunnison sage grouse by relying on voluntary and unproven measures to forestall an endangered listing.”
The Gunnison sage-grouse inhabits southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, and has disappeared from an estimated 93% of its original native range according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The bird faces continuing habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation from rural residential sprawl in its sage grouse habitats, roads, powerlines, livestock grazing, invasive weeds, drought, and other factors.