Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Gunnison sage-grouse as a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), after more than a decade of consideration and false starts. It was a decision that satisfied few.
Conservationists are displeased because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed "endangered" species status, the most protective designation, but then backtracked to the lesser threatened species status. A threatened listing leaves the door open for loopholes in protection, as is the case for another imperiled grouse, the lesser prairie chicken.
Industrial interests and their allies in state and local governments are unhappy because an Endangered Species Act listing indicates that the current suite of state and local regulations, built on collaboration and political compromise, are insufficient to deal with the threats facing the grouse. This shouldn't be a surprise, as a report by WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild released last June fully explains where state and local efforts have fallen short.
A lot of people worked hard to get sufficient protections in place to protect the bird and its habitats: Conservationists (including my organization, WildEarth Guardians) urging the adoption of science-based standards to protect the bird, state officials experimenting with transplants of captive birds and county governments adopting ordinances to consider grouse habitat needs when considering project approvals. Unfortunately, it hasn't been enough to stem the decline of this rare species.
In the end, ESA decisions must by law come down to facts and science, which changed little between January 2013, when the proposal to list the bird as an endangered species was published, and November 2014, when it gained threatened status.
The facts are these: Fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage-grouse are left on Earth, in seven isolated and fragmented populations. These birds have already disappeared from 93 percent of their native range. They face serious threats from residential development, livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, habitat fragmentation from roads and powerline networks, and other factors. Taken together, the combined efforts of federal, state and local regulations are insufficient to prevent these threats from having a major negative impact on the birds that remain.
This is a species on the brink of extinction, and decisive action is necessary.
While the Gunnison sage-grouse clings to survival, a few politicians lost their heads and created turbulence by introducing legislation to delay or deny protections that come through federal land-use plan amendments or ESA protections. Some sought delays to allow local efforts to succeed, and called for more delays when local efforts came up short. And they issued inflammatory statements against the legal safety net that protects our most imperiled wildlife.
Back in the 1970s, when President Nixon signed the ESA into law, there was a bipartisan consensus that allowing native plants and wildlife to go extinct as a result of human indifference and greed was morally unacceptable.
Respect for the land and stewardship for its wildlife were once part of the bedrock of Western culture. While these values are still widely held today, in politics they are too often trumped by commercial interests that seek maximum profits whatever the cost, rather than a blend of sustainable profit and environmental stewardship.
In the end, we can't have maximum development in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat and still have Gunnison sage-grouse. Which means that somebody needs to step up and say "no" to further destruction of Gunnison sage-grouse habitats. All the political maneuvering and lofty statements of the last several years simply didn't get the job done.
Nonetheless, everything done by local governments to assist in protecting Gunnison sage-grouse habitats moves the bird one step closer to recovery. In this regard, the threatened species listing brings the interests of environmentalists, county commissioners and developers into alignment around lifting grouse populations back to healthy levels. Gunnison County (Colo.) Commissioner Jonathan Houck struck a constructive chord in the wake of the listing, stating in an interview with The Denver Post that "We've created a community culture around conservation and stewardship. We'd like to stick with that."
The beauty of the Endangered Species Act, when properly implemented, is that it sidesteps the politics and puts science in the driver's seat. Politicians had two decades to reverse the decline of the Gunnison sage-grouse, and got partway to the finish line. Now it's the scientists' turn.
Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.