Public meetings and comment periods have ended on the issue of whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife should list the long-suffering Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
Local outcry against additional federal protection for the mostly ground-dwelling bird led to more public meetings, an economic impact study, and more comment periods, with the last one ending Dec. 2.
"It is now up to Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel Ashe (and the Secretary of Interior) to weigh all the information and make the decision, which is expected at the end of March next year," said Susan Linner, USFW field supervisor. "It could be listed as endangered, threatened, or not warranted."
A sustained and precipitous drop in overall population to about 4,600 remaining birds in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah led the USFW to propose adding it to the endangered-species list in 2010. The decision has been delayed up until now.
But fears that listing the bird would create federal intrusion onto private property, and threaten grazing and energy development, triggered intense local resistance, especially around Dove Creek and Monticello, Utah, where 1.7 million acres of proposed critical habitat overlays public and private lands.
"We are doing everything in our power to prevent this," said Julie Kibel, a Dolores County commissioner. "We don't feel a listing is needed, and don't agree with critical habitat that includes our farm land and grazing areas."
A listing would make it illegal to harass or kill the bird, or harm its habitat, unless a "take" permit is negotiated and mitigation put in place to offset development.
An 11-county coalition was formed to help implement county-level conservation efforts to help the bird recover and avoid the listing. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert support the grass-roots conservation efforts, along with U.S. Senators Tom Udall, and Michael Bennet, and Rep. Scott Tipton, of Cortez.
"The group is running strong, and we are assuring Fish and Wildlife that the 11 counties will put in regulations that consider the bird's protection in development plans," Kibel said. "I don't know of any endangered species that has had such a proactive agreement involving such a wide spectrum."
Tipton spoke on the House floor Dec. 4 to urge Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to visit Colorado and see firsthand the effective local preservation efforts.
He stated that the proposed ESA designations for the sage grouse, "would kill jobs, devastate communities and disrupt efforts currently underway" to protect the bird.
"It would put private lands off-limits to most use and development, including agriculture production, without providing any compensation," Tipton said.
But Patty Gelatt, a USFW supervisor for western Colorado, said the claim of closing off lands is unfounded.
"If the species were to be listed, it does not mean that activities can no longer take place," she said. "It just means that protecting sage grouse have to be a factor in project planning."
Gelatt explained that the ESA is flexible and allows farming, grazing, and oil and gas to continue. For example "take" permits are negotiated with landowners with birds, nests, or mating areas (leks) on their property. The permits allow for habitat disruption or harm to the bird if they interfere with agricultural plans or development.
"As a trade-off, conservation efforts elsewhere on the property in favor of the bird are implemented to balance the equation," she said.
USFW points to habitat fragmentation from roads, pipelines, and housing development as reasons for the bird's local persistent demise. There are an estimated 123 birds in the Dove Creek/Monticello area, Gelatt said, down from and estimated 147 in 2013. In 2001, there were an estimated 350 birds in that area.
But others disagree, saying the agricultural landscape, steep canyons, and alkali flats of the Dove Creek area are not ideal habitat conditions for the sage-grouse population goals of the Fish and Wildlife service.
"The population is stronger in Gunnison County, where there is more habitat for them to thrive," Kibel said. "The decline is not fragmentation of land, rather the bird is heavily preyed on by ravens, crows, eagles, hawks, and coyotes. The drought has also had a major impact on wildlife and our agricultural economy."
A "behind the desk approach" of a species listing's economic impact was done by an outside firm, Kibel said, and the study was "skewed because it was too low on crop production analysis and grazing allotments."
She added that a fourth alternative should have been considered that redraws the critical habitat map so it does not include private property and farms critical to the local economy.
Linner, of the USFW admits there has been confusion over the critical habitat map.
"Obviously there are a lot of areas within the mapping that we could not consider critical habitat because they already have some level of development, or are in a canyon, or something that does not contain sagebrush habitat."
Linner said a listing's impact for a landowner within designated habitat "would be negligible if they have no birds on their property or federal nexus" that could trigger negotiations for species conservation.
"Gunnison Basin populations are strong, but the small populations scattered around the rest of the landscape is not so good," Linner said. "The ESA was put in place to protect species and the ecosystems that they depend on. If the sage grouse meets the definition of threatened or endangered, we are obligated to list it."