The Gunnison Sage-Grouse, a bird native to southeastern Utah and southeastern Colorado, is officially a threatened species warranting protection under the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service ruled today. The bird was first proposed to FWS for listing in January 2013, when fewer than 5,000 individuals remained.
The agency was forced to list the bird as threatened as part of a legal settlement with the environmental non-profit WildEarth Guardians. The bird, which was first recognized as a separate species from the Greater Sage-Grouse in 2000, has faced a decade of population decline, brought on primarily by habitat loss and fragmentation: Accelerating highway construction, power lines, and housing development in sage-grouse country has obliterated the shrub-steppe habitat the bird requires for mating and rearing chicks. The sage-grouse now occupies only 7 percent of its original range.
"That the Gunnison Sage-Grouse made the list at the lower classification of 'threatened,' rather than 'endangered,' is thanks to conservation efforts from local groups and state agencies in Colorado and Utah," said Dan Ashe, the director of FWS, in a conference with reporters. "The best science today tells us that while not facing imminent danger, [the sage-grouse] is at risk of extinction in the near future," he added.
The ESA listing was hitched to a land use ruling that deemed 1.4 million acres in southern portions of Colorado and Utah "critical habitat." This means anyone—private citizen, federal agency, land developer, or energy company—looking to develop on protected land must get a special ESA permit to do so.
There are caveats: For the next several months, FWS will work with states, farmers, and industry groups to determine who won't need permits to build on sage-grouse habitat, per the so-called 4d rule. The list will likely include residential uses, routine agricultural production, and landowners already subscribing to voluntary federal programs protecting sage-grouse land.
Ashe hedged on what latitude oil and gas developers will get under the coming exemptions. While he says the agency "will be looking closely at activities that may disturb habitat for the sage-grouse, particularly activities around active [sage-grouse breeding grounds]," he adds "[the oil and gas companies] know what they're doing" when it comes to observing wildlife and conservation management rules where they drill.
While there is at least scientific consensus that the sage-grouse population is declining, political consensus around the right way to protect it is a long way off. Colorado's Democrat Governor John Hickenlooper immediately pounced on the decision, calling it in a statement "a major blow to voluntary conservation efforts, and we will do everything we can, including taking the agency to court, to fight this listing and support impacted local governments, landowners, and other stakeholders."
Audubon has previously reported that the mere threat of an ESA listing, in many instances, is more effective in getting landowners, farmers, and environmental groups to cooperate on conservation efforts than an actual listing is. Voluntary programs are less costly, draw less on the ESA's ever-dwindling budget, and allow for more common-sense land development. WildEarth Guardians, the plaintiffs in the suit that brought about today's ruling, prefers the listing route. Along with the Center for Biological Diversity, the group has lodged 34 out of the 46 petitions for listing or uplisting since 2011.)
Anticipating this critique, Ashe closed the conference by saying, "the ESA clearly is a flashpoint. Decisions like today's become points of time when we focus mostly on the potential for conflict. I'm sure today we'll hear political rhetoric, but tomorrow we'll get to work."