Western Governors Defend Their Efforts to Protect the Sage Grouse

How much is enough? Maybe even too much? That's what the Western Governors' Association wants to know as it pertains to protecting the Western and Gunnison sage grouse.

In a recent letter to Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell, the governors offered their third inventory of programs and initiatives that the states are undertaking to preserve the potentially threatened birds.

"These steps preclude the need to include the greater sage grouse on the federal endangered species list," the governors asserted.

Should the greater sage grouse or the smaller population of Gunnison sage grouse be listed as an endangered species, the states fear that it would impact oil and gas operations and cattle ranching across much of the Intermountain West. Eleven states have sage grouse habitat, and not one wants its birds listed.

That was a fate narrowly avoided in 2010 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird under the Endangered Species act as "warranted but precluded." Should "precluded" turn to "included" the governors fear "significant economic impact."

Since 2003, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has overseen a habitat protection initiative for both greater and Gunnison sage grouse, with more than 40,000 acres of greater sage grouse habitat and 31,000 acres of Gunnison sage grouse habitat protected either through fee title purchase or conservation easement at a cost of approximately $65 million dollars.

Last year, Colorado and Utah entered into an agreement to foster conservation of the threatened Gunnison sage grouse, with Delta, Dolores, Gunnison, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray, Saguache and San Miguel counties specifically named as participants, along with San Juan County, Utah.

Other states have many similar initiatives, as outlined by the governors' communication. The question is whether those efforts will suffice to keep the birds off the list.

Writing in High Country News, environmental studies professor Andrew Gulliford doesn't think so. He states that the Gunnison sage grouse in particular is faced with extinction, with fewer than 5,000 remaining. Another assessment of the sage grouse's fate is offered by the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which notes their greatly reduced numbers largely due to disrupted habitat.

The governors have stated a strong case for their conservation efforts. The ball is in the feds' court.

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