Legislation that would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review tribal, state and county data before listing an endangered species was approved by U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday.
Congressman Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, was a co-sponsor of the legislation and said in a written statement it would increase transparency by requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to publicly post the data used to list endangered species.
“The legislation we passed today in the House will bring greater transparency to the (Endangered Species Act) process by requiring federal agencies to disclose scientific data, cooperate with state and local governments, and ensure that the listing process works to the best interest of a species and impacted communities,” Tipton said in a statement released Tuesday.
The measure is supported by Dolores County Commissioner Julie Kibel, who has been trying to work with federal officials and take steps to prevent the Gunnison sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“When I first read that bill I was like ‘Yahoo!,’” she said.
Fish and Wildlife has cited human population density as the No. 1 factor impacting the grouse, Kibel said. However, in Dolores County, the population has declined since the 1960s, and there are more natural challenges facing the grouse within the county.
Kibel said the county has sent letters and pictures to the Fish and Wildlife service showing challenges including drought, a high number of crows and ravens feeding on grouse eggs and tumbleweeds in the sagebrush canopy that keep the birds from taking cover. The county also submitted information on the county’s low population and few housing developments that would cause fragmentation of the population.
The Dolores County has not heard from Fish and Wildlife about their submissions. However, the decision to list the bird has been delayed twice, and a decision is expected in November.
If the bird is listed. 108,000 acres in Dolores County could be listed as critical habitat. Land in Montezuma County isn’t being considered for habitat designation. Private landowners on critical habitat could be required to get permits for any action that might impact the grouse population, such as building a fence.
The sage grouse was one of the potential species listings that played an important role in moving these bills forward, but was not the exclusive driving force, said Josh Green, a representative for Tipton’s office.
If the legislation passed it would require the federal government to consider the scientific data submitted by tribal state and local governments, but the legislation does not speak to how those local governments conduct studies, Green said.
This is concerning to scientist Brett Hartl because being forced to use local data with potentially conflicting information could work to undermine the scientific listing process. Hartl is a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that fights for many endangered species listings nationwide.
“The bill seeks to define the best available science as anything and everything that is submitted by the states and counties,” he said.
In addition, he said posting all data used to support the decision to list a species could have unintended consequences, such as populations and locations that could tip off poachers, in some cases.
However, Kibel sees the bill as giving local landowners and governments a voice in the process because they are the ones that can be most proactive in conservation. For example, Dolores County has recently rerouted trucks that were disrupting grouse nesting.
“The best people to help with conservation are the landowners,” she said.
However, the future of the legislation may be bleak. Hartl, the Endangered Species Policy Director for the center, said the legislation is unlikely to be approved by the Senate.