Gunnison sage grouse gets federal protection

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Gunnison sage grouse, (AP Photo/Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Dave Showalter)

Gun­ni­son sage grouse, (AP Photo/Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Dave Showalter)

Fed­er­al offi­cials grant­ed pro­tec­tion to the Gun­ni­son sage grouse on Wednes­day, a move that could bring restric­tions on oil and gas drilling and oth­er activ­i­ty to pre­serve the bird’s habi­tat in parts of Col­orado and Utah.

Col­orado Gov. John Hick­en­loop­er imme­di­ate­ly renewed the state’s threat to sue to block the mea­sures. He said the deci­sion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice ignores 20 years of work by state and local offi­cials to pro­tect the bird.

Utah offi­cials were also crit­i­cal, with Gov. Gary Her­bert call­ing the deci­sion a step back­ward for con­ser­va­tion and the economy.

Some envi­ron­men­tal groups praised the deci­sion, while oth­ers said it did not go far enough.

Fish and Wildlife Direc­tor Dan Ashe said the bird qual­i­fies as a threat­ened species under the Endan­gered Species Act, mean­ing it’s like­ly to be pushed to the brink of extinc­tion soon.

Threat­ened sta­tus is less seri­ous than endan­gered, which means a species is on the verge of extinc­tion now and requires tighter restrictions.

An esti­mat­ed 5,000 Gun­ni­son sage grouse remain in south­west­ern Col­orado and south­east­ern Utah. About 2,200 square miles will be des­ig­nat­ed as crit­i­cal habitat.

The extent of restric­tions on drilling and oth­er activ­i­ties was not imme­di­ate­ly known. Ashe said the area does not appear to have sig­nif­i­cant poten­tial for energy.

Drilling could con­tin­ue despite the restric­tions, he said.

I think the indus­try knows how to devel­op with min­i­mal sur­face dis­tur­bance,” Ashe said. But he said the agency will close­ly exam­ine any activ­i­ty that could affect the bird.

Ener­gy com­pa­nies could be required to con­sol­i­date drilling on few­er sites and use direc­tion­al drilling to avoid dis­turb­ing habi­tat, he said.

The West­ern Ener­gy Alliance, which rep­re­sents oil and gas pro­duc­ers in the West, said Ashe is under­es­ti­mat­ing the impact on com­pa­nies already oper­at­ing in the area.

We real­ly view this list­ing deci­sion as unnec­es­sary and unfor­tu­nate,” said Kath­leen Sgam­ma, a spokes­woman for the group.

Sgam­ma agreed the indus­try knows how to lessen its impact on wildlife, which she said calls into ques­tion the need for the threat­ened-species listing.

Threat­ened sta­tus gives fed­er­al offi­cials flex­i­bil­i­ty in approv­ing new or expand­ed agri­cul­tur­al oper­a­tions, Ashe said. Landown­ers who already have agree­ments with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to pro­tect the Gun­ni­son grouse won’t see any change, he said.

The Gun­ni­son grouse is relat­ed to the greater sage grouse, which is at the cen­ter of a sep­a­rate and larg­er debate over fed­er­al pro­tec­tion across 11 West­ern states. The Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice has a Sep­tem­ber 2015 court-ordered dead­line to rule on the greater sage grouse.

Ashe cau­tioned against view­ing Wednes­day’s deci­sion as a clue to the next rul­ing. “These are sep­a­rate species and a much dif­fer­ent fact pat­tern,” he said.

Hick­en­loop­er and local offi­cials in Col­orado sought to delay the Gun­ni­son grouse deci­sion, say­ing vol­un­tary steps could help save the bird.

Ashe praised the work state and local offi­cials have done, say­ing it helped avoid the more strin­gent “endan­gered” status.

Some Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­bers of Con­gress from both states crit­i­cized the decision.

Utah Divi­sion of Wildlife Resources Direc­tor Greg Shee­han said the list­ing will require “tedious and time-con­sum­ing” fed­er­al reviews and will hurt preser­va­tion efforts more than help.

Ashe said he had asked WildEarth Guardians, an envi­ron­men­tal group that filed suit to force a deci­sion, for a delay, but the group declined.

WildEarth Guardians said threat­ened sta­tus was inad­e­quate and the bird should have been grant­ed more strin­gent endan­gered status.

We can’t gam­ble on the sur­vival of this bird with the vol­un­tary or sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly inad­e­quate pro­tec­tions that could be allowed under a ‘threat­ened species’ des­ig­na­tion,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biol­o­gist with the group.

Clait Braun, a sci­en­tist who stud­ied Gun­ni­son sage grouse for the Col­orado Divi­sion of Wildlife from 1977 to 1999, agreed.

This is a token. It’s not a seri­ous effort to con­serve this species,” said Braun, who runs a con­sult­ing com­pa­ny called Grouse Inc.