DENVER— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the Gunnison sage grouse warrants Endangered Species Act protection, but that listing is precluded by higher priority actions and lack of resources to finalize a listing rule. The grouse will now become a candidate species under the Act, offering it no formal protection. The decision continues an unfortunate trend by the Obama administration of failing to list species its own biologists have determined to be imperiled.
“Here we go again,” said Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians. “The government has now determined that greater sage grouse, Mono Basin sage grouse, the Columbia Basin population and now Gunnison sage grouse all warrant protection under the ESA, but hasn’t listed any of them.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service previously decided that Gunnison sage grouse were not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act in April 2006. However, upon further review, the agency agreed to promulgate a new listing decision today. Historic and current population trends and threats support listing the bird under the Act.
“The Service first acknowledged a decade ago that the Gunnison sage grouse is threatened with extinction,” said Amy Atwood, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is the latest in a series of decisions to avoid protecting this iconic bird that amount to navel-gazing and a tremendous waste of resources.”
Gunnison sage grouse are among the most imperiled species in the United States; Audubon has identified the bird as one of the 10 most endangered in the country. The Endangered Species Coalition also declared Gunnison sage grouse as one of the most imperiled species in the nation. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s status report, The State of the Birds 2009, found that western deserts and grasslands — home to sage grouse and other sensitive species — are among the most degraded habitats in the country.
“The Gunnison sage grouse is a part of Colorado and Utah’s natural heritage that is in serious trouble,” said Megan Mueller, senior staff biologist at Center for Native Ecosystems. “It’s no surprise that we are losing Gunnison sage grouse when we are allowing oil and gas drilling, rapid development, and inappropriately managed livestock grazing in most of the grouse’s remaining habitat.”
San Miguel County, Colorado, and eight conservation organizations have endeavored to protect Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, including (in alphabetical order) Audubon, Black Canyon Audubon Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Native Ecosystems, The Larch Company, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Sheep Mountain Alliance and WildEarth Guardians. The new decision is the result of a settlement agreement between the Service and the coalition, which was represented by attorneys with the Center for Biological Diversity, the county and Western Environmental Law Center.
“In order to truly protect Gunnison sage grouse, we need everyone to participate, including the local BLM field offices,” said Mueller. “Private conservation efforts are part of the solution, but all of us, from the smallest independent farmers to the large oil and gas companies, are going to have to do our part to keep this amazing bird here for future generations. That’s where the Endangered Species Act can make a difference.”
The Gunnison sage grouse is distinct from greater sage grouse, identified by researchers as early as the 1970s and recognized as a new species by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2000. While its historic range may have included parts of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, the species now occurs only in eight small populations in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Gunnison sage grouse have experienced significant declines from historic numbers, and only about 4,000 breeding individuals remain. Livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, motorized recreation and urbanization have contributed to the long-term decline of the bird.