DENVER – The old adage in the West is that “whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” Enter the Gunnison sage-grouse.
The chicken-sized bird with spiky tail feathers and a lavish mating dance has brought a different kind of fight to the West.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it is classifying the Gunnison sage-grouse as threatened to keep it from going extinct. The birds are found in portions of Colorado and southeastern Utah.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, announced the state is preparing a lawsuit to overturn the federal government’s protective classification.
Bipartisan outcry has come from Colorado lawmakers who lambasted the federal government for offering the classification, despite comprehensive efforts by state and local communities to protect the birds.
The issue has set off a firestorm of debate, pitting the energy industry and its supporters against conservationists.
The birds rely on sagebrush leaves for their diet. But development on grouse habitat, including gas and oil exploration, has limited their territory, making it difficult for the birds to mate and nest.
Federal protection will limit development in an effort to repopulate the dwindling birds. It is believed that fewer than 5,000 remain.
Meanwhile, federal officials also could expand the list of grouse under protection to the greater sage-grouse. The bird is believed to live in 11 Western states, so an endangered listing could have even larger impacts.
“First and foremost, it’s critical that we save this iconic Western wildlife species,” said John Gale, campaign manager for the National Wildlife Federation, which has been leading efforts to protect the grouse. “We can do that with strong conservation plans that protect key greater sage-grouse habitat while allowing responsible energy development, grazing and other activities on other public lands.”
But critics of the federal protective designation worry that the feds are intruding on an issue that the state is already addressing.
Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, who recently won his legislative seat back after losing it in 2012, called the feds’ decision “disrespectful.”
“This is a big part of my district, and I know how hard these folks have worked to protect the Gunnison sage-grouse. We must fight the feds on this one,” Brown said. “It is not rational, and it’s not respectful.”