A grouse divided

Will new federal protections rescue the Gunnison sage grouse?

  • Male Gunnison sage grouse fight over territory near Gunnison, Colorado.

    Dave Showalter

In the 1970s, biologist Clait Braun noticed something different about the sage grouse in western Colorado’s Gunnison River Basin. Their wings and bodies seemed smaller than those of the greater sage grouse, which strut through sagebrush across millions of acres in 11 Western states. More research revealed more differences: The Gunnison males pop the yellow air sacs on their chests more frequently during their exuberant mating rituals and wag their butts at its finale. Their genetics are also distinct, and in 2000, the Gunnison grouse was recognized as a separate species.

Scientists were excited but worried, because by then, only about 4,000 birds remained, squeezed into just 10 percent of their historic range as sagebrush vanished under houses and cows. Braun, who led Colorado’s bird research program from 1973 to 1999, saw isolated populations disappear from Colorado and southern Utah. He prophesied a bleak future, warning NewTowncarShare News in 2006 that Endangered Species Act protection offered the “best opportunity for the Gunnison sage grouse to be around 50 years from now.”

But for years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wavered, citing studies that showed a small yet steady population of about 4,600. Then, in January 2013, under legal pressure, it finally proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered and setting aside critical habitat where ranching, oil and gas drilling, and other development could be limited. This November, the agency officially listed the grouse — but only as threatened: The bird is inching toward extinction, the agency claims, but not yet at the brink.

Braun saw the downgrade as a “slap in the face.” It will change little on the ground, he argues, where the continued loss and fragmentation of sagebrush is slowly strangling the species. “They could have done a threatened listing 20 years ago,” Braun says, and it might have helped. Now, the grouse “deserves” the stricter protections of an endangered listing.

The listing won’t force new restrictions on landowners or energy companies taking voluntary steps to help grouse. It’s a politically softer approach, but whether it can save the species is unknown.

Farmers, ranchers, energy companies, local and state governments and federal land-management agencies have spent years trying to avoid a listing. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is developing a conservation plan to reduce impacts from cattle grazing and oil and gas drilling by restricting those activities during nesting and wintering on 400,000 acres in the Gunnison Basin, where nearly all the remaining birds live. Voluntary pledges cover another 94,000 private acres, where farmers and ranchers agree to alter grazing practices and limit herd sizes, and improve or restore habitat. Colorado state managers are translocating birds from the Gunnison region to restore six satellite populations, some with just a few dozen survivors.

Listing opponents, who believe this is sufficient, denounced the decision; Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, threatened to sue. Still, the voluntary measures helped keep the bird from being tagged endangered, as originally proposed. That means industry, ranchers and homebuilders may not have to do more than they’re already doing.

The listing is a politically softer approach, but whether it can save the species is unknown.

Threatened status allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to propose a so-called 4(d) rule, an Endangered Species Act provision that would leave BLM and state management plans in place, and shield landowners already taking voluntary measures from new and tougher restrictions. The agency is pursuing a 4(d) rule for the Gunnison sage grouse, as it’s done with the recently listed lesser prairie chicken and the polar bear.

But environmental groups see threatened listings and 4(d) rules as a way to avoid restricting development when habitat overlaps with politically powerful industries. “It used to be 4(d) rules were very uncommon,” says Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “Now, it seems every other listing has a 4(d) rule attached.” Molvar says the rules serve as loopholes, allowing industries to continue harming species. Braun adds that the voluntary agreements and conservation plans used to justify the grouse’s threatened status have demonstrated “no measurable success” in increasing its numbers or distribution. He is joining WildEarth Guardians to sue Fish and Wildlife for an endangered listing.

The decision also reduced the proposed critical habitat from 1.7 million to 1.4 million acres. That sounds like a lot of land, but drilling leases already issued within it probably won’t be nixed, while on land covered by voluntary agreements, drilling and other activities can continue. Habitat disturbances often cause grouse deaths — from roads and vehicles, power lines and predators, says Cameron Aldridge, a research scientist with Colorado State University. Additionally, Aldridge’s research has shown that roads and urbanization cause “functional habitat loss,” meaning the birds avoid otherwise healthy and suitable sagebrush close to development. And Gunnison County is expected to keep growing, from 15,700 to 21,000 people by 2040, with most new development likely to clear sagebrush from private lands.

“We know that as sagebrush is lost, we lose sage grouse,” Aldridge says. “If we want to maintain populations, we can’t lose any more sagebrush.”

Braun believes the satellite populations will eventually “zero out,” leaving just one viable population in the Gunnison Basin, and the entire species thus vulnerable to a single wildfire or West Nile virus outbreak. The threatened listing may be an attempt to appease stakeholders on both sides of the decision, but Braun says it won’t save Gunnison sage grouse. “We know what’s going to happen, we just don’t know the timing,” he says. “In 20 years, maybe, they will all be gone.” 

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