Current work in wildlife, rivers, public lands, and climate
Federal plan endangers recovery for dwindling Gunnison sage-grouse in Colorado, Utah
The plan calls for removing the grouse from the federal list of threatened species once there are 3,669 birds in the Gunnison population for seven of nine years. That number is significantly fewer birds than the estimated 3,978 that inhabited the Gunnison Basin in 2014, when the bird was so rare that it was designated a ‘threatened species’ under the Endangered Species Act. The isolated “satellite populations” fare even worse under the recovery plan, which would remove protections while these populations remain far below “minimum viable population” (MVP) thresholds established in the scientific literature. The agency’s plan abandons any pretense of recovering current sage-grouse populations at Poncha Pass, Dove Creek, and Cerro Summit/Cimarron/Sims Mesa, prescribing no required population target sizes for these populations.
“The minimum viable population size should be 5,000 based on the scientific literature, but even the Gunnison Basin population has a lower target,” said Clait Braun, the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s former avian research program manager. “The USFWS is abdicating responsibility for conserving satellite populations, and is placing all the eggs in the Gunnison Basin basket, condemning the species to extinction if there is an unforeseen stochastic event there.”
The agency’s recovery plan cited just nine scientific studies. It completely ignored key recent science on Gunnison sage-grouse, including a 2012 study on the impacts of development on sage-grouse in the Gunnison Basin and a 2014 state report on noise impacts on the grouse. Instead of requiring measurable and enforceable standards for habitat conservation, the plan makes vague reference to future collaboration on setting habitat goals with the counties and livestock producers who sued to block the listing in the first place.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned its back on the science with the cursory analysis in its Recovery Plan and status assessment, and instead relies on the politics of collaboration to set habitat protection standards later,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “The Gunnison sage-grouse needs measurable, enforceable habitat protections to survive and recover, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has produced a recovery plan lacking concrete conservation requirements. The Trump administration’s war on science and punting federal responsibility to local government politics are now moving into endangered species decision-making, which is required by law to be based solely on science.”
The recovery plan comes on the heels of BLM decisions not to designate any Areas of Critical Environmental Concern for Gunnison sage-grouse in the Tres Rios and Uncompahgre Resource Management Plans, and to adopt scientifically-inadequate safeguards for the birds’ habitat in recent land-use plans. For example, although the draft recovery plan calls on federal land management agencies to improve their resource management plans and protect suitable habitat within 4 miles of breeding sites, the BLM’s August 2019 proposed resource plan for its Uncompahgre Field Office protects only habitats within 0.6 miles of breeding sites. The BLM admits this would “fall short of minimum protection standards to maintain sage-grouse viability.”
“Bringing the Gunnison sage-grouse back from the brink requires decisive and concerted action, but instead we have two federal agencies working against each other,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is urging federal land managers to improve protections for public-land habitat, but the BLM is moving in the opposite direction with this incredibly weak plan. This is a recipe for extinction for this beautiful bird. We’ll do everything possible to keep that from happening.”
The plan’s recovery strategy in the plan relies heavily on trapping and moving Gunnison sage-grouse instead of measurable habitat protection and restoration standards. There is no evidence that transplants from the Gunnison Basin have led to sustained population increases anywhere in the grouse’s range over time.
“If federal agencies were serious about recovering this rare bird, they would require concrete conservation actions like closing critical habitat to oil and gas leasing and drilling, blocking subdivisions, removing barbed-wire fences that kill low-flying grouse, burying overhead powerlines, and cutting back the chronic overgrazing of sage-grouse habitats that deprives these birds of hiding cover,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate with WildEarth Guardians. “Instead, this plan applies no controls applied to the most important human causes of sage-grouse extirpation.”
The groups said the law requires a rigorous approach to recovering listed species under the Endangered Species Act.
According to Braun, “It is not reasonable to believe the overall Draft Recovery Plan as prepared will be successful. At best it will be a ‘straggling failure’ while at worse it will lead to extinction of Gunnison Sage-Grouse.”
The conservation groups are pressing for public meetings on the draft recovery plan. The range of the Gunnison sage-grouse is the traditional homeland of the Ute, Hopi, and Arapaho peoples.
 Aldridge et al. 2012. Crucial nesting habitat for Gunnison sage-grouse: A spatially explicit hierarchical approach. J. Wildl. Manage. 76: 391-406; Piquette et al. 2014. Acoustic soundscapes in the Gunnison Basin and effects of anthropogenic noise on Gunnison sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus) in the Gunnison Basin, Colorado. Final Report to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 27 pp.