Extension Granted to Gunnison Sage-Grouse ESA Decision – Endangered?
In April, In April, Audubon submitted comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in support of the proposal to list the species as endangered and designate critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Read the Audubon letter here . When the five factors for listing determination were considered by the USFWS and outlined in the Federal Register, four of these were identified as currently a threat/potential to become a threat in the future for this species throughout all of its range. Given these thorough analyses of the best scientific and commercial data available and the high magnitude of imminent threats to the species, Audubon supports listing Gunnison Sage-grouse as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This species fits the definition of a species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Audubon also supports designating critical habitat for the Gunnison Sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Audubon agrees with the USFWS that the 1.7 million acres is prudent and critical habitat is determinable.
In partnership with the Audubon Council of Utah, Audubon Rockies also sent letters to congressional leaders in Colorado and Utah, urging them to consider the listing based on science and not politics. In response to an action alert we sent, over 10,000 of you also took action in support of the USFWS proposals! During the first public comment period, USFWS received information indicating substantial disagreement regarding the interpretation of scientific literature, and literature that may not have been fully considered.
With fewer than 5,000 birds remaining in CO and UT, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse is in a dire situation. On July 15, the USFWS announced a 6-month extension for a final decision on both the proposed rule to provide ESA protection and designation of areas as critical habitat (now 3/31/14). According to the USFWS, this is in response to additional scientific information recently received and to public comments before making a final determination on these rules. Publication of the announcement reopens the public comment period on the proposed rules for 45 days, until Sept. 3, 2013.
At a public meeting on July 16 at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, USFWS Director Dan Ashe told representatives from 11 counties throughout southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah that would be affected by the designation, “We certainly understand a listing has consequences.” Ashe also stressed that there is a big difference between the designations of threatened and endangered. “If a species is endangered, all of the restrictions in the law apply, and we don’t have any flexibility. If a species is threatened, the law allows us to tailor the regulatory restrictions,” he said. Read a recent article about this meeting.
Comments may submitted electronically. Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: In the search box, enter the appropriate Docket No: Docket No. FWS-R6-ES-2012-0108 for the proposed endangered status for Gunnison sage-grouse; or Docket No. FWS-R6- ES-2011-0111 for the proposed designation of critical habitat for Gunnison sagegrouse. Then, in the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, check on the Proposed Rules link to locate the proposed rule. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!” Reminder - The reopened public comment period will end on Sept. 3, 2013.
Audubon remains committed to the position that ESA decisions should be based on science, not politics.
Stay tuned for more information and ways to have your voice heard!
 (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat/range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence. Factor (B) was ultimately excluded as a current or future threat to GUSG.
Like a small, dark turkey, the male Gunnison Sage-Grouse fans a raised tail and puffs out a white chest to advertise its fitness. Unlike the turkey, the sage grouse also has a pair of yellow air sacs that add a dramatic popping noise to the display.
Until 2000, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was considered part of a single species, the Sage Grouse. Recent genetic work and behavioral studies prompted ornithologists to split it into the Greater Sage-Grouse and the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, which has a severely restricted range and a tiny population.
Once spread over a vast area, that population has been described by one lead ornithologist as "several orders of magnitude higher" than it is today. Between 1953 and 1999, population estimates have decreased by 66%, and since the 1980's several isolated populations have been extirpated. In response to dry conditions, between 2001 and 2004, the number of males counted on traditional breeding grounds (leks) fell from 712 to 498 in the Gunnison Basin alone. At the same time, all other leks saw dramatic decreases. With higher rainfall, some larger populations recovered losses in 2005 and 2006, but small populations have not.
In 2007, no government agency listed the Gunnison-Sage Grouse as more than a Conservation Concern, a status without legal clout. BirdLife International considers it endangered, and Audubon lists it as one of the top ten endangered species in North America. However, in April 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the grouse as Endangered and removed it from the candidate list entirely.
With so few of this grouse remaining and real threats to its fragmented habitat, this species needs immediate conservation attention. An estimated 500-1,500 birds are required to maintain a population. A gene pool that shrinks below this level can lead to greater susceptibility to disease and complications from inbreeding. Currently, only the Gunnison Basin population appears to have the potential to sustain itself. Overgrazing of brush lands, suburban sprawl, new roads, power lines, and wind turbines continue to degrade and destroy the sagebrush. From the late 1950's to the early 1990's, an estimated 20% of southwestern Colorado's sagebrush was lost and another 37% was significantly degraded.
State and local programs for predator control, re-seeding sagebrush, and limiting human access have already been implemented in some areas. Educational outreach includes a viewable lek, school programs, and brochures. Conservation groups have worked to protect this grouse with Local Working Group Plans, but less than half of the grouse's range is controlled.
Colorado's Gunnison Sage-Grouse Rangewide Conservation Plan (RCP), in coordination with the 8 other federal and state agencies, details the need for federal leadership and support for the conservation effort. Most important are federal incentives for private landowners, the management of grazing and energy extraction on federal lands, the authority to stop habitat loss, translocation and breeding programs, and habitat re-construction to link the disjointed populations.