Feds announce sage grouse doesn’t need endangered species listing
Craig — Five years of hand-wringing came to a happy end Tuesday with the announcement that the greater sage grouse, an ancient ground bird native to sagebrush habitat throughout 11 Western states, would not be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Northwest Colorado officials took the news gladly but with reservations in light of the simultaneous release of the final Bureau of Land Management sage grouse plans. With more than a third of Moffat County’s land area coming under the new regulations set forth by the plan, local officials worry it could hamper future oil and gas development.
“I’m really pleased and want to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service kudos for not listing the bird… That’s huge,” said Moffat County Commissioner Chuck Grobe. “But we’re saddled with this BLM plan… It’s going to be cumbersome to energy development, especially in Moffat County.”
The listing decision was revealed early Tuesday morning by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a video posted to social media, who cited the collaborative conservation efforts of the past five years as a major driver for the “not warranted” decision.
“This has been an extraordinary effort on a scale we’ve never seen before,” Jewell said in the video. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that these collective efforts add up to a bright future for the greater sage grouse.”
The bird was found to be “warranted but precluded” from protections under the Endangered Species Act in 2010, leading to a lawsuit and settlement in which the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to re-evaluate the bird’s status by Sept. 30 of this year.
Since that moment, an unlikely consortium of ranchers, conservationists, energy industry representatives, scientists and local, state and federal officials across multiple agencies came together to tackle the problem of declining sage grouse populations and habitat.
“Northwest Colorado, for 20 years, has been really working to try to come up with collaborative solutions and it has been working,” Grobe said. “Our numbers are up.”
Indeed, Colorado sage grouse populations are estimated to be nearly double what they were two years ago, according to data from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The decision not to list the bird is a major victory for Westerners, who would be loathe to see the federal government gain oversight of 173 million acres of sage grouse habitat across the West.
“If they would’ve listed it given all the work our landowners have done and our local governments have done, it would’ve been a crushing blow to this approach to try to balance conservation, species protection and economy,” said John Swartout, sage grouse advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper. “Getting to ‘not warranted’ is a huge deal.”
Conservation efforts in Northwest Colorado have included the creation of conservation easements across tens of thousands of acres of ranchland and sage grouse habitat, which create permanent protections from development. One Routt County program funnels voter-approved mill levy dollars towards purchasing development rights on large swaths of land.
“We’ve been able to put (more than 40,000 acres) in Routt County under permanent conservation easements, a great deal of which is prime sage grouse habitat,” Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan said.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has also been a driving force for range and habitat improvements on private land throughout Northwest Colorado through the Sage Grouse Initiative.
Most recently, the Colorado Habitat Exchange was finalized by the state of Colorado and sent to Fish and Wildlife and the BLM last week for approval. The program would provide industry with options to offset their development impacts on sage grouse habitat by essentially allowing them to pay private landowners to create or improve habitat on their land.
Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Tuesday that efforts such as these across the range added up to a unanimous recommendation from his team of nearly 20 supervisors and directors to not list the bird.
“I never thought I would be so happy and so proud to hear the words not warranted,” Ashe said at the press conference. “We are already seeing rates of decline lessen across the range as compared to historical averages, but we must sustain, support and implement every element of this strategy in the days ahead or we will almost certainly find ourselves reconsidering this decision in the years ahead.”
Now that the listing hurdle has been cleared, Moffat County officials will look to decipher whether the newly released BLM plan reflects any of their requested changes. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, will also be looking closely at how the BLM plans will be implemented.
Gardner introduced the Sage Grouse Protection and Conservation Act in April, which sought to block both listing and implementation of the BLM plans in favor of allowing states to implement their own plans.
“We have to continue to monitor the land management plans to make sure they are not implemented in a way that negatively affects the economy,” Gardner said in a phone interview with the Daily Press. “We’re in kind of a wait-and-see pattern on whether or not this meets the needs of local stakeholders.”
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