Saving The Sage Grouse: Lessons From Listing The Gunnison Sage Grouse

Sep 10, 2015

The federal government will decide whether or not to list the greater sage grouse on the Endangered Species List later this month. Another sage grouse species, the Gunnison sage grouse, has been on that list since last November. The government followed a distinct and separate process for the Gunnison grouse, classifying it as “threatened”.

It’s not the strictest classification under the Endangered Species Act, and it was an attempt to recognize efforts to protect the bird  in Colorado's Gunnison County. But in the end it seemed to please no one. The state of Colorado and Gunnison County sued the federal government because they thought the listing went too far. Some environmental groups sued because they said the listing didn’t go far enough. Similar lawsuits are expected after the greater sage grouse decision.

“That irritates me,” says rancher Greg Peterson, who put more than 2,500 acres of his land into conservation easements near the town of Gunnison. “It’s just created confusion, it’s created a lawsuit, it’s taken resources away from things going on in the ground. And it’s put it them into litigation.”

A'Culture Of Stewardship'

Conservation efforts for the Gunnison sage grouse ramped up after the American Ornithologists’ Union recognized the bird as a distinct species from the greater grouse in 2000. The bird is slightly smaller than the greater grouse, has long crown plumes and a more elaborate mating display.

“This community has really stood up for the sage grouse,” says Jonathan Houck, a Gunnison County commissioner. Since 2000, Gunnison grouse numbers have hovered around 5,000 in southeastern Colorado and Utah, the only two states where the bird lives. 

Houck says many have rallied to save the bird. Ranchers have entered thousands of private acres into conservation agreements. During mating season, mountain bikers don’t use certain trails. Access to some public roads is restricted. A full-time wildlife biologist scrutinizes local building proposals that could affect the bird’s habitat. A strategic committee including environmentalists, scientists and ranchers guide decision making. Conservation is taught in schools.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees trail closures between March 15 and May 15 in the North Gunnison Basin to help protect Gunnison sage grouse.
Credit Grace Hood

“I have a nine-year-old who, when my wife says she’s going for a run in the morning, reminds her not to be on the trails until after 9 a.m. if it’s lekking season,” Houck says. “We have a presence in the community that has been part of what’s really created that culture of stewardship.”

A Listing, Then Lawsuits

In the November 2014 listing decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service praised the “diligent and effective” work done in Gunnison County. The bird’s population consists of a core Gunnison Basin group, which local conservation efforts had stabilized. But it was the six smaller isolated satellite populations stretching from southern Colorado to southeastern Utah that were of concern.

“I don’t think we feel that Gunnison has done anything wrong,” says Theo Stein, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Stein says local efforts have made a difference with the core population of Gunnison grouse. That gets at a key lesson when it comes to the greater sage grouse. No matter what the listing decision is, conservation work before a ruling is critical. The federal government has worked hard with ranchers and poured millions of dollars into states like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

“That’s one commonality is that folks are recognizing that we can do a lot of good work before you get to a decision,” says Stein.

But after the Gunnison sage grouse was listed, the state of Colorado sued the federal government to challenge the science used in the listing decision. John Swartout, who advises Colorado leaders on both grouse species, explained the lawsuit is also about protecting hard-fought partnerships between the state and private landowners.

“That’s the basis for the lawsuit," Swartout says.  "That’s what we’re trying to protect. Because without it, the farmer or rancher says, ‘You see the fence? That means you can’t come on my property. And you’re never going to find out how many Gunnison sage grouse I have on my property.’”

But the federal government has also built relationships with private landowners. Most recently it announced $211 million for more conservation work on public and private ranching lands for the greater sage grouse.

Funding for future conservation of the Gunnison sage grouse is what drove the conservation group Center For Biological Diversity to file its lawsuit. Senior Attorney Amy Atwood says the group is seeking an “endangered” classification for the bird under the Endangered Species Act because it brings more funding. Atwood says it will also bring more protections for the bird.

“It is going to be given lower priority for recovery funding because the federal government hasn’t officially acknowledged the species’ true status as endangered,” says Atwood. “It’s less likely that activities or threats that are going to continue to push the bird toward extinction will be reigned in in any meaningful way.”

Creating Uncertainty

Outside the town of Gunnison, rancher Greg Peterson drives along a dirt road to the land he has protected under conservation easements. In the back of his pick-up are four black-and-white cattle dogs.

Greg Peterson stands next to a solar well he installed on his Colorado ranch several years ago. He says the well has facilitated pasture growth, which is also good for the Gunnison grouse.
Credit Grace Hood

Peterson says he’s proud of the work he’s done. But he’s also frustrated with how the listing decision has played out.

“That’s part of the problem,” says Peterson. “I guess there’s never certainty in life, but having the bird listed I think to some degree creates more uncertainty.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service says the “threatened” classification does provide assurances for landowners who have already entered into conservation agreements. A forthcoming rule this fall is expected to add more assurances for farmers and ranchers. The rule is something Gunnison County has declined to review because of the pending lawsuits.

And that gets at a final lesson from the government's Gunnison sage grouse decision. Until lawsuits are resolved, collaboration to de-list the bird will be very difficult. It's a lesson that could soon apply to the massive efforts underway to save the greater sage grouse.

For more local news, follow the KBSX newsroom on Twitter @KBSX915

Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio