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Federal Land Protections Long Overdue, Groups Say
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A coalition of conservation groups applauded the federal government’s announcement today of a planning process to adopt stronger protections for the Gunnison sage grouse across federal lands in southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah. Federal lands make up approximately half of the remaining occupied habitat for the imperiled bird. The plan amendment process was required as part of an agreement in May between WildEarth Guardians and the Interior Department that allowed the deadline for an Endangered Species Act decision on the bird to be pushed back six months.
“Even though the federal government has been working on beefing up protections for the greater sage grouse across eleven states for more than three years, federal land protections for the Gunnison sage grouse have been slow in coming, even though the prognosis is far more grave for the survival of this bird,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The agencies that manage federal lands across the range of the Gunnison sage grouse have some catching up to do, and hopefully the strong body of scientific knowledge developed for the greater sage grouse will be adopted in this process to achieve the science-based protections needed for recovery to healthy population levels.”
Gunnison sage grouse have declined to an estimated rangewide population of 4,773 birds, more than 4,000 of which are in a single population in the Gunnison Basin with the remainder in small and imperiled populations inhabiting six pockets of remaining habitat scattered across what was once the heart of the species’ original range.
“Gunnison sage grouse have lost 97% of their habitat,” said Megan Mueller, senior scientist with Rocky Mountain Wild. “The little remaining habitat needs to be protected or the birds cannot survive, and half of the remaining habitat is on public lands. We are pleased to see the federal agencies taking action to improve management of Gunnison sage grouse habitat through this federal planning effort. Protecting habitat on public lands is a critical step towards ensuring survival of the Gunnison sage grouse.”
The Gunnison sage grouse faces a number of threats on federal land, including habitat fragmentation and degradation.
Oil and gas development is a major threat to Gunnison sage grouse, particularly in the San Miguel and Dove Creek-Monticello populations. Throughout the Gunnison sage grouse range, livestock grazing often removes so much grass that the sage grouse no longer have enough hiding cover to escape detection by predators. Gunnison sage grouse also face human-caused threats from powerlines and fences on all land ownerships, and from rural subdivision and development, primarily on private lands.
A recent report by WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild found that state and local efforts to protect Gunnison sage grouse are a patchwork of inconsistent and often lacking protections, while federal protections were virtually absent.
Because the federal planning process will take years to complete, it is unlikely to have any effect on the impending Endangered Species Act decision, which must be filed by November 12, 2014.
“It is clear that neither state, local, nor federal protection for Gunnison sage grouse will be in pace by November that legally qualify as adequate regulatory mechanisms under Endangered Species Act’s requirements, so a listing is unavoidable,” Molvar concluded. “However, strong, science-based protections in the federal plans would enable threats to be addressed and put the Gunnison sage grouse on the path to recovery on those public lands, and the recovery of the bird is what will be necessary to lift Endangered Species Act protections.”