A high-level federal official last week voiced support of local efforts to improve habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse. But Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), offered little hope the efforts would forestall an engandered species listing.
Decades of work by local governments and private landowners on the Western Slope, and local spending of an estimated $30 million may all go to waste if federal officials decide next March to list the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species.
An endangered listing would open the door to increased federal oversight and scrutiny on 1.7 million acres of public and private land on the Western Slope and in Utah, something local officials have hoped their conservation efforts could avoid.
Delta County officials, along with those from nine other Colorado counties, and from San Juan County, Utah, met with Ashe in Gunnison on July 16 and detailed their efforts to conserve grouse habitat.
But the almost 30 representatives from the 11-county consortium got no encouragement that all their work and money will help avoid an endangered listing for what has become known as "the bird."
Delta County's delegation to the session included Commissioners Doug Atchley and Mark Roeber, and County Administrator Robbie LeValley. Atchley said afterward that a general sense among local governments is that a decision to list the bird as endangered is all but inevitable. Roeber noted that endangered status for the bird is likely to prompt a new effort to get endangered status for the far more numerous and wide-spread greater sage grouse.
The 11 counties fear a replay of the severe local economic and social disruptions, and bruising legal battles that accompanied listings of Tennessee's snail darter fish in the 1970s and of the Northwest spotted owl in the 1980s.
After listening for over an hour as officials from the 11 counties and from Utah Governor Gary Herbert's office detailed their efforts to conserve grouse habitat, Ashe told the group "Life goes on" for local communities after an endangered species is listed in their area. He repeated the remark another four times during a question and answer session that followed the presentations.
"There is no doubt that (an endangered species) listing has consequences" for local economies, he said. "But, we work around endangered species issues every day... The Fish and Wildlife Service is quite expert at working with communities." At another point in the two-hour session he added, "All of the restrictions in law apply if a species is listed as endangered."
Ashe softened his tone at times calling the local counties' conservation efforts "impressive" and "inspirational." His comments also indicated that in some instances regulations can be tailored to deal with specific situations. He called the local efforts "highly relevant to the decision we are making," and added, "Our desire is to honor that work and commitment."
He also told the local officials, "We have to look at (the issue) range-wide," and that the FWS listing decision is "a question of science," later adding, "that is not to say that science is cut and dried. Science gives us a range of options."
Ashe's remarks didn't specifically address calls that "faulty science" has been used to justify the bird's endangered status. One example: commissioners from Ouray and Hinsdale counties flat out denied the existence of any scientific evidence that Gunnison sage grouse inhabits their counties. Yet the FWS has identified areas of "critical habitat" for the bird in both of those counties, the commissioners said.
West Slope conservation efforts for the sage grouse began at least in the 1990s, a decade before the Gunnison sage grouse was tagged as a separate species. On two occasions (2006 and 2010) the FWS's own wildlife experts ruled the bird as variously ineligible for listing, and both times environmentalist supporters of listing got the decisions reversed.
Like designation of the Dominguez-Escalante NCA and wilderness, the main push for the bird's endangered listing comes from national environmental groups, not from local grass roots supporters. The bird's proposed endangered listing is part of an FWS agreement with environmentalists to decide on the status of 250 other species at the same time.
The case for human-caused decline of the Gunnison sage grouse has been linked to studies involving the greater sage grouse, an entirely different species from the bird, as environmentalists note. Perceived threats to the bird's survival include many normal and essential human activities including farming, ranching, ag fences, power lines, mechanized travel, energy development and production, and building houses.
Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett disagrees on the human-caused decline argument. She told Ashe in Gunnison that her county has an average of six people per square mile. Sighting of a Gunnison sage grouse hasn't been documented there in at least five decades, she said. The county's 4,400 residents numbered 4,700 before the 2008 financial crisis. "And, we hadn't exactly seen unbridled growth before 2008, either," she told him.
Yet, over 10,000 acres of Ouray County could be designated as "critical habitat" for the bird. "You actually weaken the Endangered Species Act if you list the bird without a scientific basis for it," Padgett told Ashe.
The FWS is also considering a proposal to designate 1.7 million West Slope acres as "critical habitat" for the bird. The designation would bring increased federal oversight and control to both public and private lands. The counties' conservation efforts have been aimed at eliminating the additional regulation. It is seen as an impediment to the necessary activities of their always fragile, resource-based economies.
To that concern, Ashe replied, "Critical habitat doesn't add that much conservation value. I wouldn't even designate it if the law disn't say I have to.
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"Critical habitat is over-rated," he said to the local officials whose play-by-the-rules efforts to help the bird have cost them $30 million of their own dollars.