CraigCraig — — The following is an excerpt from The following is an excerpt from Part I of a three-part series printed by the Craig Daily Press in June.
Craig — The following is an excerpt from Part I of a three-part series printed by the Craig Daily Press in June.
Since it was deemed “warranted but precluded” from protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2010, the greater sage grouse has become the poster child of a massive conservation effort aimed at protecting the sagebrush ecosystem in 11 states throughout the West.
The 165 million acres of sagebrush in which the bird resides is also home to 350 species of other wildlife, including big game such as deer, elk and pronghorn. What happens to the bird — whether it is eventually listed as threatened or endangered, or whether its habitat is effectively conserved or continues to decline — will impact the lands and herds sportsmen rely on.
The issues facing the greater sage grouse — not to be confused with the nearby Gunnison sage grouse, listed as threatened in November of 2014 — have brought ranchers, energy industry representatives and sportsmen’s organizations to the table with scientists and multi-level government officials to figure out how to protect the bird and its disappearing habitat.
The motivation behind the unprecedented collaboration across agencies, states and cultural boundaries (aside from pure conservation interests) is to keep the bird from landing on the endangered species list. A listing would put control of the bird’s fate into the hands of the federal government, something most Westerners would loathe to see happen.
Though Congress has temporarily blocked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to list the greater sage grouseThough Congress has temporarily blocked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to list the greater sage grouse, the looming possibility of a listing has catapulted the bird to the top of the priority list for countless local and state government agencies, industry and private landowners. , the looming possibility of a listing has catapulted the bird to the top of the priority list for countless local and state government agencies, industry and private landowners.
Though Congress has temporarily blocked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to list the greater sage grouse, the looming possibility of a listing has catapulted the bird to the top of the priority list for countless local and state government agencies, industry and private landowners.
Indicators of an ecosystem in declineIndicators of an ecosystem in decline
Indicators of an ecosystem in decline
Though the sagebrush steppe may look like a vast, empty sea, it is actually more like an old-growth forest teeming with life. It is also the most widespread vegetation in Western North America, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Since settlement of the West took place in the 19th century, sagebrush lands have also become home to cattle, sheep and other livestock, crop agriculture, oil and gas development, wind energy development, mining, pipelines, transmission lines and other forms of human development.
One of the threats Fish and Wildlife identified to sage grouse populations is habitat loss, in large part due to human use and alteration. The agency estimates it occupies only 56 percent of its historic range, or nearly 260,000 square miles.
Many conservationists consider the bird to be an indicator species for the health of the entire ecosystem and the other wildlife that depend on it.
“There are a multitude of species out there that are harder to gauge and that we will see listing filings for if we don’t deal with this issue and deal with this issue now,” said Brian Rutledge, vice president and policy adviser with the National Audubon Society’s Rocky Mountain region. “By resolving the sage grouse situation, we’d resolve the sagebrush ecosystem and that’s by doing it not as one-species management, but by looking at a holistic approach.”
Greater sage grouse numbers have steadily declined over the last several decades. This year, however, Colorado wildlife biologists and stakeholders are celebrating a boom year for sage grouse and hoping it indicates a reversal of the bird’s downward population trends.
Colorado’s greater sage grouse numbers have nearly doubled in the past two years, according to 2015 count data finalized by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in June. Though Colorado is only 4 percent of the greater sage grouse’s total range, population numbers seem to be generally on the rise in other states as well.
Northwest Colorado — including Moffat County and small portions of Routt and Rio Blanco counties— is home to more than 70 percent of Colorado’s sage grouse population, with other significant populations in Northpark, Middlepark and the Parachute-Piceance-Roan Plateau region.
“We’re really in the fast growth part of that population fluctuation,” said Brad Petch, senior wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Things are looking to be improving and improving fairly rapidly, but these will fluctuate over time, and in the future, too, they will likely decline.”
The bird’s natural population fluctuations can make it difficult to discern overall population trends, though Petch is hopeful the 2015 numbers represent a step in the right direction.
Nonetheless, the last few years of growth follow a recent period of sharp decline in grouse populations and several decades of gradual decline across the bird’s 11-state range. Fish and Wildlife estimates a 30 percent decline in numbers since 1985.
As public land managers and private landowners tackle the problem of how to best protect the bird and its habitat, they enter into a balancing act between conservation and continued development.
The challenge is “to figure out how you continue development but maintain the species, because economies depend on this (land),” according to Rutledge. “There is no one economy of the West. It’s not gas and oil, it’s not just agriculture, it’s not just recreation, it’s hunting, it’s fishing, it’s all of the above.”
Some human land uses — such as livestock grazing — are more compatible with sage grouse conservation objectives than others — such as oil and gas development.
While it may seem counterintuitive that hunting of sage grouse is still allowed in Colorado and the majority of the bird’s home states, hunting is neither considered a primary threat to current populations nor a cause of their decline.
Moreover, it is tightly regulated. Hunting of sage grouse is only allowed in about half of the bird’s range in Colorado, where populations are large and robust. The hunting season in Northwest Colorado and Middlepark is seven days in October, with a bag limit of two birds per day and a possession limit (at any one time) of four birds.
“Sportsmen have put most of the money into wildlife conservation,” Petch said. “Having folks out there with a stake in the game is tremendously important in terms of bringing attention, conservation dollars and a desire to maintain the species… We wouldn’t preemptively want to exclude people from that activity and lose support for grouse conservation… Those folks can be tremendous allies in the long term conservation of the species.”
What’s the end game?What’s the end game?
What’s the end game?
Opponents of an endangered species listing, which make up the vast majority of stakeholders, contend that local and state agencies, in partnership with private landowners, can do conservation better.
“There are pros and cons to both,” said Pat Deibert, national sage grouse coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “There’s no doubt that listing has motivated many efforts. Listing could impact the way of life in the West, but I also think it’s people realizing this is a system that’s valuable and we’re at risk of losing it.”
But Fish and Wildlife is not the only federal player with a say in how the bird’s habitat is managed. While Congress has temporarily hamstrung Fish and Wildlife’s ability to determine how the bird should be managed, its sibling agency under the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, recently rolled out Land Use Plan Amendments focused on sage grouse conservation that would alter nearly 100 land use plans, affecting 66 million acres, throughout the West.
The regulations proposed in the plans, which could go into effect as early as August, could have a significant impact on the future balance of conservation and development across the bird’s range.
For an explanation of how legislation is impacting the potential for a listing, read the accompanying story For an explanation of how legislation is impacting the potential for a listing, read the accompanying story here.
For an explanation of how legislation is impacting the potential for a listing, read the accompanying story here.
Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.