Brooke Palmer, a seasonal trapper with the Colorado Division of Wildlife holds a female Gunnison Sage-grouse. The grouse was trapped and collared for relocation to “seed” a satellite lek outside of the Gunnison Basin.
It’s been a long wait for a Gunnison Sage-grouse (GuS-g) listing decision and the Jan. 10 US Fish and Wildlife News Release didn’t surprise anyone close to the issue. The Service officially proposed listing the Gunnison Sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In the News Release, the USFWS applauded local partners and agencies – and rightfully so, Gunnison formed a GuS-g working group years ago, bringing together the entire extended community where grouse habitat exists. Ranchers, conservation groups, Western State College, land managers, and government agencies are on the same page and managing the grouse as if they were already listed. Sisk-A-Dee is managing the public viewing blind and special events like the Gunnison Sage-grouse Festival so people actually have an opportunity to see and learn about the grouse.The ESA is a powerful tool and it’s not easy to get a species listed – there’s a long waiting list of “Warranted But Precluded” species deserving of ESA protection. But there are only 4,000 or so GuS-g’s left in the world, mostly in the Gunnison Basin, literally all of the eggs in one basket, so they had to be listed.
I’ve gotten to know some great folks in Gunnison and consider the collaborative effort to save the grouse one of the best conservation successes in the West. It doesn’t matter whether one’s motives are altruistic, just that people are working together in the spirit of community. Ranchers ranch for profit and there’s nothing wrong with that. We humans have monkeyed with everything in the landscape, so it makes perfect sense that a wide range of habitat improvements are being tested, that grouse are collared, tracked, counted, and relocated. But before we start high-fiving the decision, a step back may be in order. We got here because of a failure to recognize GuS-g as a species and actively manage them. Habitat got flooded for Blue Mesa and Miramonte Reservoirs, plowed under, paved, developed, and strung with high voltage powerlines. Hunting continued unabated far too long after it was obvious that numbers were declining sharply. And adding further insult, political appointee Julie McDonald doctored science that set grouse back further. The reason for the retrospective that does no good for the future of the species is to say that this ESA listing represents a failure over decades and a warning to those with conflicting interests in places where imperiled species exist. What if Greater Sage-grouse populations (which cover a much larger geography) crash as we struggle throught another winter of drought? And what of the sagebrush obligate speices that share habitat with grouse? We have a pretty good idea of what healthy sagebrush should look like, with native grasses and forbs blooming in the sage – but the ecosystem is stressed in drought and animals that spend their life in sage struggle too.
The onus to recover GuS-g now falls on the same folks that have worked so hard to improve habitat and increase populations before the listing. I think the USFWS will work with landowners to avoid draconian regulations, but I’m concerned that there will be hardship when ranchers can’t use a spring pasture or have to truck cows somewhere else to graze – at their expense. No one knows what the management plan will be, but ranching is the backbone of Gunnison Sage-grouse and I hope we can have sustainable ranching, healthy habitat, and recover the species.