Rare Bird Threatened by Drilling, Sprawl, Livestock Grazing in Utah, Colorado
Ryan Shannon, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 283-5474 x 407, firstname.lastname@example.org
Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, (307) 399-7910, email@example.com
Todd Tucci, Advocates of the West, (208) 342-7024 x 202, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Clait E. Braun, (520) 529-4614, email@example.com
GUNNISON, Colo.— Four conservation groups reached an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today to stay legal action while the agency prepares a recovery plan for the Gunnison sage grouse, a critically imperiled bird in Colorado and Utah known for its elaborate courtship rituals.
The coalition’s lawsuit argued the grouse warranted endangered rather than threatened status under the Endangered Species Act. Today’s agreement maintains the bird’s threatened status and requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a recovery plan to identify and reduce threats to the species within 30 months.
“Our agreement ensures the Gunnison sage grouse will get a recovery plan before it’s too late to save these magnificent birds,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This critically imperiled species has really suffered as its habitat has been lost to oil and gas drilling, urban sprawl and overgrazing. A robust recovery plan is a good first step toward preventing the grouse’s extinction.”
The grouse is limited to a relatively small area of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Because of a history of habitat loss and fragmentation, a mere seven isolated populations remain, with a total population of only approximately 4,000 birds as of spring 2017. Of those seven populations, six are in decline.
“There is no doubt that the Gunnison sage grouse should be listed as endangered,” said Talasi Brooks, a staff attorney at Advocates of the West. “But given the severity of threats the few remaining birds continue to face, our agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides a viable path to recovery for the species. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure the best outcome for Gunnison sage grouse.”
“Gunnison sage grouse continue to be endangered because of loss of habitat,” said Gunnison sage-grouse expert Dr. Clait Braun. “This agreement has reasonable potential to stabilize populations over time through development of a recovery plan.”
The agreement ensures the recovery plan will be based on the best available science and address the impediments to the grouse’s recovery from livestock grazing and other threats.
“Livestock grazing is a major problem for the Gunnison sage grouse, with two-thirds of public-land grazing leases failing to meet even the most basic land-health standards,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Federal and local agencies have turned a blind eye to habitat degradation caused by cattle, but this settlement should require federal agencies to start taking steps to remedy problem livestock grazing in important Gunnison sage-grouse habitats.”
“Past and current conservation efforts have failed this magnificent bird,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians. “We are hopeful a robust, science-based recovery plan will finally get Gunnison sage grouse on the road to recovery.”
The public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the draft Recovery Plan when it is released by the Service.
Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity were represented by Center attorneys; WildEarth Guardians and Dr. Braun were represented by attorneys at Advocates for the West.
Despite clear ongoing threats to the bird’s survival, in November 2014 the Service designated Gunnison sage grouse as a threatened species, rather than the more protective endangered species designation the agency had proposed in January 2013. The Service also announced plans to develop a special rule allowing the same destructive activities threatening the bird to continue. However, the special rule never materialized.
In 2014 the Service also significantly reduced the area to be protected as critical habitat for the dancing birds by nearly 275,000 acres between the proposed and final rules. During the time between the proposed endangered listing in January 2013 and the reduced-protection threatened listing in December 2014, the Gunnison Basin population dropped from 4,082 to 3,978 birds, state and local governments failed to adopt enforceable protections that address the threats facing the bird, and development and grazing continued to degrade the species’ habitat.