Obama Administration Mulls Listing of Sage Grouse, Despite Lacking Reliable Population Data

February 12, 2012
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DENVER, CO – No creature strikes fear in the hearts of Colorado farmers and local energy developers like the sage grouse, which may be why Gov. John Hickenlooper is entering the fray.

The Democratic governor announced Feb. 10 that he will co-chair an Interior Department sage-grouse task force with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey. The panel’s mission is to find strategies for states to “keep this species vibrant and off the threatened and endangered species list,” said Hickenlooper.

Listing the sage grouse would devastate Western economic activity, given the bird’s vast habitat, which covers 57 million acres and spans 11 states. But critics worry that recent federal efforts to protect the sage grouse threaten to become so onerous that the result might be almost as harmful to the Western economy as a listing itself.

In 2011, the BLM launched a massive land-management review that proposes to expand significantly the buffer areas around sage-ground habitat. In addition, the BLM and Forest Service released Dec. 21 a national strategy on sage-grouse conservation that would also ramp up land-use restrictions with little regard for the economic impact, say critics.

“We’ve seen a marked increase in regulatory scrutiny from the BLM, both in their existing Resource Management Plan revisions and the new sage-grouse management strategy they’ve proposed,” said Denver land-use lawyer Kent Holsinger. “We’ve taken a look at the revisions in our own backyard, and it’s incredibly more restrictive. It’s insane.”

That could explain Hickenlooper’s sudden involvement. “There’s no doubt that there have been concerns expressed to the governor of Colorado, and this may be a reaction to that,” said Holsinger.

The Fish and Wildlife has temporarily listed the bird’s status as “warranted but precluded,” meaning that the sage grouse deserves protection but that other species have priority, given the agency’s limited resources. In a settlement agreement reached with environmental groups, the agency agreed to remove the sage grouse from warranted-but-precluded status by September 2015.

The Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group based in Idaho, had sued to speed up the deadline, but a federal judge rejected the challenger in a Feb. 3 decision, albeit with reservations.

“[T]he FWS has recently committed to reducing the backlog, and has made specific commitments regarding the sage grouse,” said U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill in his opinion. “These commitments are the only reason the Court will uphold the agency’s certification that it is making expeditious progress. If those commitments prove unreliable, the Court will quickly revisit its findings here upon prompting from any party.”

WWP executive director Jon Marvel called the ruling “disappointing,” but added that “all it really does is delay slightly the day of reckoning that’s coming anyway.”

“Considering how the agency analysis of current conditions projects declines for many years in the future, it’s highly likely that the case for [listing] the sage grouse will be significantly stronger than it is today,” said Marvel.

Western land-use advocates worry that those projections are badly out of whack. They point out that there are already more than 300 sage-grouse conservation initiatives at the local, state and federal level.

Federal agencies manage nearly two-thirds of sage-grouse habitat. There are no firm estimates as to the actual number of sage grouse.  Colorado is home to the two species of bird: the Greater sage grouse and the Gunnison sage grouse. Ironically, the Greater sage grouse’s numbers are so large that hunting is permitted in several Colorado counties, although hunting the Gunnison sage grouse is prohibited.

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