COLORADO – A federal judge has upheld the Endangered Species Act protection for the Gunnison sage grouse.
The judge’s refusal to remove the sage grouse from the list upholds the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that the species warranted protection under the act. The ruling was handed down on Thursday.
The Gunnison sage grouse is known for its elaborate courtship rituals and is found primarily in Colorado, with small populations in Utah. Wildlife conservation groups spoke in favor of the ruling in a news release.
“Today’s decision gives the magnificent Gunnison sage grouse a fighting chance to survive and ultimately recover,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We hope that Utah and Colorado will now spend their time and considerable resources working to safeguard this imperiled dancing bird instead of fighting against our best tool to prevent extinction.”
The species was protected with 1.4 million acres of designated critical habitat in 2014. At the center of the dispute is how much land the species needs in order to survive. The land designation impacts ranchers and farmers in the Gunnison area. It also can affect the sale of oil and gas leases on BLM lands.
“The court clearly recognized that with seven declining and isolated populations, and local conservation efforts incapable of eliminating the clear and well-documented threats to the Gunnison sage grouse’s survival, the specter of extinction remains a very real and troubling possibility today,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “The court found no scientific merit in the notion that existing state and local conservation efforts are enough to save and recover this bird.”
Wildlife conservation groups point to sprawling development, oil and gas drilling, grazing and climate change as factors in the diminishing habitat across both states and site the dwindling environment as reasons to keep the sage grouse under protected status.
“We’re relieved that desperately needed protection for these unique birds will stand,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Now it’s time for federal wildlife officials to focus on recovering this critically imperiled species. We need quick action or the West will lose these birds forever.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is one of several organizations that intervened in the lawsuit to defend the species. The states of Colorado and Utah, as well as Gunnison and San Juan County, were listed as plaintiffs in the suit.
“Gunnison sage grouse numbers are tanking as their habitat is destroyed, and the science clearly shows that the species is endangered,” said Talasi Brooks, a staff attorney at Advocates of the West. “But we’re glad that the Gunnison sage grouse will remain protected. Hopefully, the species can recover.”
The bird is limited to areas in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. There are a reported seven isolated populations of the sage grouse with a total population of fewer than 3,000 birds.
“Sadly, the numbers don’t look good for the Gunnison sage grouse with only 723 males counted in 2018,” said noted Gunnison sage grouse biologist Clait Braun. “That translates to about 2,892 total Gunnison sage grouse left in the entire world. Hopefully, the judge’s decision means that we can protect this small remaining population.”
Earlier this month, Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D) sent letters to the state Bureau of Land Managment expressing concerns with pending December 2018 oil and gas lease sales. Both cite the habitat of the Gunnison sage grouse as a factor to be considered, as well as the local concerns from citizens and agricultural organizations.
“Our chief concern is the lack of public participation in the new leasing process,” Hickenlooper said. “We continue to ask for the deferral of those parcels in sensitive areas particularly those protecting wildlife corridors, where the public has been heavily engaged in pending land use plans, and where there is significant local opposition to the leases being offered in the first place.”