Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, took fire from both sides over his agency's decision last week to list the Gunnison sage-grouse as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. Several Western politicians threatened to sue over a listing they thought was too restrictive and dismissed voluntary conservation efforts. At the same time, some conservation groups threatened a lawsuit over a listing they felt did not go far enough. Still others viewed the threatened status as a positive outcome for local efforts to preserve this grouse.


The agency's threatened listing for the Gunnison sage-grouse is validated by strong science, with data showing that populations have declined to fewer than 5,000 individuals spread across seven fragmented populations in southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado. Altogether, the Gunnison sage-grouse has lost about 90 percent of its former range. Habitat loss and degradation due to human disturbance is the primary threat to this species, though the small and isolated remaining populations are also vulnerable to drought, disease and inbreeding.

Identifying the most effective conservation strategies for the Gunnison sage-grouse is complicated by the fact that approximately 43 percent of the land where it lives is privately owned. Conservation in this area of the West requires public–private partnerships. Indeed, multiple partners — including ranchers, farmers, private citizens, industry and conservation groups — already have come together to identify voluntary conservation approaches to grouse recovery. Highly visible among these efforts are the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances for Gunnison Sage-Grouse, the Gunnison Basin Candidate Conservation Agreement, and the Sage Grouse Initiative. Public–private efforts are showing early signs of success. For example, the main population of Gunnison sage-grouse in Gunnison County, Colo., appears to be stabilizing.

For some, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to protect Gunnison sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act was interpreted as a stinging condemnation of ongoing grassroots conservation. Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperSenate rejects Cruz effort to block stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Third approved vaccine distributed to Americans Democrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic MORE (D) said the decision ignored "the extraordinary efforts over the last two decades by the state, local governments, business leaders and environmentalists to protect the Gunnison sage[-]grouse and its habitat" and sent "a discouraging message to communities willing to take significant actions to protect species." Other Western leaders, including Colorado Sens. Mark UdallMark Emery UdallKennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package Udalls: Haaland criticism motivated 'by something other than her record' MORE (D) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSenators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Democrats push Biden to include recurring payments in recovery package Democrats: Minimum wage isn't the only issue facing parliamentarian MORE (D) and Rep. Scott TiptonScott R. TiptonDemocrats press to bar lawmakers from carrying guns in the Capitol House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit Newly elected Colorado Republican wants to carry her gun in the Capitol: report MORE (R-Colo.), likewise criticized the decision for disregarding the success of local efforts.

On the other side, some balked at the downgraded threatened listing. "We can't gamble on the survival of this bird with the voluntary or scientifically inadequate protections that could be allowed under a 'Threatened Species' designation," said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians.

Though the decision indicates that conserving the remaining populations of Gunnison sage-grouse will require additional protection, the agency's decision nonetheless recognizes the past success and future promise of voluntary conservation partnerships. After all, the Gunnison sage-grouse was initially proposed to be listed as "endangered," the highest level of species protection. In its press release, the agency explicitly credited the conservation efforts by states, tribes, local communities, private landowners and other stakeholders that "helped reduce the threats to the bird sufficiently to give it the more flexibly protected status of 'Threatened.'"

The less restrictive listing actually rewards and affirms the ability of partnerships to move their good work forward. Indeed, the listing includes provisions and exclusions that support existing conservation initiatives, including those that release ranchers, farmers and other landowners from additional restrictions so long as they commit to their existing conservation efforts for protecting the grouse.

Had the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doubted the ability of voluntary efforts to contribute meaningfully to the recovery of the Gunnison sage-grouse, the bird would be listed as endangered, with few exemptions or special provisions. In the end, given the private-land realities of conservation for the Gunnison sage-grouse, coupled with the demonstrated goodwill and efforts by partners, this wise, partnership-friendly decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers the best hope and way forward for preserving the future of this bird and its uniquely American habitat.

Rodewald is director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, and a Robert F. Schumann Faculty Fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.