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Judge Upholds Endangered Species Act Protections for Gunnison Sage Grouse
The Gunnison sage-grouse — an imperiled bird in Colorado and Utah known for its elaborate courtship rituals — was protected as a threatened species with 1.4 million acres of designated critical habitat in 2014. With only a small fraction of its historic range remaining, the bird is in danger of disappearing because of sprawl development, oil and gas drilling, grazing and climate change.
“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, Dr. Clait Braun, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians had intervened in the lawsuit to defend the Gunnison sage-grouse against attacks from the states of Utah and Colorado; San Juan County, Utah; the Board of County Commissioners of the County of Gunnison, Colo.; and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association.
The Gunnison sage grouse is limited to a small area of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Because of a history of habitat loss and fragmentation, a mere seven isolated populations remain, with a total population of fewer than 3,000 birds. All seven populations are in decline.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity were represented by Center attorneys. WildEarth Guardians and Dr. Braun were represented by attorneys at Advocates for the West.