WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has delayed for six months its decision to list the sage grouse as an endangered species sparking hope among Colorado lawmakers the state’s voluntary efforts will receive greater attention.
Westerners are concerned that if the bird is listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, recreational activities and energy development will be severely restricted on nearly two million acres of land in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah that would be deemed as “critical habitat” for the wide-ranging bird.
Instead, western lawmakers are urging the Interior Department and Fish and Wildlife Service to examine local efforts already in place to help preserve the species.
“Colorado has been a leader in Gunnison sage grouse recovery with successful locally-tailored efforts that take into account the unique geography and environment of the region in order to best preserve the species,” said Rep. Scott Tipton, Colorado Republican.
“This announcement is good news for these local conservation efforts, and I hope that during this time, the Fish and Wildlife Service takes into account all public comments submitted, and closely considers the recommendations of those that live in the communities most affected,” Tipton said.
“It would also be helpful for the Fish and Wildlife Service to provide state and local officials with measurable expectations for recovery of the grouse so we can ensure those goals are being met at the local level,” Tipton said.
The public comment period ended in April but will now be extended until Sept. 3 and a final decision rescheduled for March 31, 2014.
Tipton, along with Colorado Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, asked for the extension in a July 12 letter to key Obama administration officials and outlined the work already completed by the state to preserve the bird.
“We believe the collaborative and voluntary process our state has undertaken could be used as a model to protect other threatened species within Colorado and across the country,” the lawmakers said.
Local governments and private landowners initiated voluntary conservation measures across the bird’s habitat, including the purchase of private property, at a cost of $30 million in both private and taxpayer dollars.
“Thanks to these initiatives we’ve made great progress – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data now show the population of Gunnison sage grouse has increased in the Gunnison Basin,” the lawmakers said.
Agreements already in place for future work could provide even greater preservation for the birds than the federal listing, the lawmaker said.
“The decision to extend the deadline for a final decision on the listing of the Gunnison sage grouse is welcome news to officials and communities in southwest Colorado who have worked hard to determine the best way to protect this species and its habitat,” Bennet said.
“We look forward to working with the agencies and everyone on the ground in Colorado to achieve local consensus on the best way to manage a healthy population of the species going forward,” Bennet said.
Udall added that he would continue to work with federal officials and local stakeholders “to ensure that any actions are taken based on science, input from the people of the Western Slope and knowledge of the conservation measures that are already underway.”
In announcing the delay, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it would give federal officials more time to consider additional scientific information they have recently received.
It follows on the heels of a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey that suggests the only way to preserve the species is to restrict multiple-use of the bird’s habitat, as well as setting aside large swaths of its habitat for preservation.