Historical context The Gunnison Sage Grouse (centrocercus minimus) is a species of grouse whose primary remaining habitat is the Gunnison Basin. Extirpated from historic habitat in several states, including Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the population has been declining since the 1950s. About two-thirds of its habitat is on public land, most of which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
In 1995, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Gunnison County, Gunnison County Stockgrowers, High Country Citizens’ Alliance, Black Canyon Audubon, biologists and other individuals began meeting to consider what could be done to reverse the unique bird’s decline. The consensus-based group of over 20 people (known as the Working Group) spent long hours together identifying potential causes of the decline. After identifying over 40 of these, the group created a Conservation Plan to inspire voluntary management actions which, participants hoped, would help restore the population. The more than 200 actions are based on restoring habitat quality, reducing habitat loss and fragmentation and preventing physical disturbance of the birds.
While some of the plan has been implemented, efforts need to be increased. In addition to the Working Group's plan, state and federal agencies created a Rangewide Conservation Plan in 2004, which has become the primary operative plan. Despite these efforts, the Gunnison Sage Grouse population has continued its rangewide decline, which shows that it is not easy to bring an imperiled species back to health.
In 2005, Gunnison County Commissioners created the Gunnison Sage Grouse Strategic Committee, a group similar to the Working Group, but intended to address important issues and make decisions by the voting method, hoping to find quicker resolution to determining and accomplishing actions. In 2010, the Working Group ceased to exist, essentially replaced by the Strategic Committee, as many members were serving on the Strategic Committee and there was no need for duplicate efforts.
HCCA’s role Since the Working Group’s inception, High Country Citizens' Alliance has played an important advocacy role for the Gunnison Sage Grouse. Creating the conservation plan required compromise in order to reach consensus with the diverse group. Since 1995, we have participated in ongoing meetings and field trips, helping evaluate the group’s efforts and seeking to promote cooperation among the various stakeholders. We helped place some protection for sage grouse habitat into Gunnison County’s 2001 Land Use Resolution. Portions of this document were changed in 2003 and we continue to advocate the restoration of significant protections as Gunnison County continues to experience rapid development. We served on the Information & Education subcommittee of the Working Group, which produced T-shirts, brochures and a documentary video about the grouse and the efforts to save it. Proceeds have gone towards educational purposes. We now serve on the I&E committee of the Strategic Committee, helping organize a Sage-Grouse Summit to be held in April of 2011.
Current status On September 27, 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Gunnison Sage Grouse warrants protection under the ESA, but that proposing the species for protection is precluded by the need to address other, higher priority species. USFWS cited residential development, roads, inadequate local regulations and other factors in its decision. The "Warranted But Precluded" determination classifies the species as a candidate for addition to the federal list of threatened and endangered species. As a candidate species, the Gunnison Sage Grouse will remain a state-managed species. The Fish and Wildlife Service will review the bird's status annually until a listing proposal is published or a "not warranted" determination is made.
ESA protection Declaring a species officially “Endangered” is a controversial subject. High Country Citizens' Alliance supports this designation, a decision we arrived at after nine years of hoping that voluntary actions would begin the recovery process.
High Country Citizens' Alliance asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service for Endangered status in 2004. We cited many factors, principally the rapid pace of development in Gunnison County, with limited controls on impacts to grouse habitat. With approximately 2,000 birds remaining, we felt it was time to employ the more certain measures that Endangered protection would bring.
FWS has introduced a new approach, called a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, which landowners can sign to bring more certainty to their obligations should listing ever occur. Future conservation measures would be lined out in advance; 20-year contracts with individual landowners would limit their exposure to variables on private lands. Gunnison County Stockgrowers supports the CCAA approach.
Gunnison County commissioners have declared their intent to keep the Gunnison Sage Grouse population viable. Now that listing has been postponed, they will need to continue to play an assertive role in making the Strategic Committee more effective. This work includes fostering more cooperation among federal and state agencies and private landowners, along with improving County land use regulations.
While collaboration and cooperation are extremely important to the survival of a species, the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act would augment and enhance these efforts. We hope the Gunnison Sage Grouse will get this protection in the near future.