In a long-awaited decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that the Gunnison Sage Grouse requires the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper renewed his threat to sue to block the measures. He said the decision ignores 20 years of work by state and local officials to protect the bird.
The extent of restrictions on oil and gas drilling and other activities was not known. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said the area designated as critical habitat does not appear to have significant potential for drilling.
Energy companies could be required to consolidate drilling operations on fewer sites and use directional drilling to avoid disturbing critical habitat.
The bird has a population of less than 5,000. It will be listed as a threatened species, rather than the stringent endangered status, said Theo Stein, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman.
“The core population in Gunnison County is strong, but the satellite populations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah are not in good shape,” Stein said. “We had to make a decision on the entire species.”
It is estimated that there are just 100 birds in the Dove Creek and Monticello, Utah, region. San Miguel County has an estimated 206 birds. Gunnison county has 3,978 birds.
“The service feels that right now all of our eggs are in one basket with the stabilized Gunnison County population,” Stein said. “We want to work with communities and land agencies to give the satellite populations a better chance to expand.”
The threatened designation and habitat map totalling 1.4 million acres will be published soon in the Federal Register.
An earlier map showed 348,353 acres for critical habitat in Dolores, San Miguel, and Gunnison counties.
After pressure from Colorado, the total critical habitat acreage was reduced by 275,000 acres, but which areas were eliminated were not available.
Dolores County commissioner Julie Kibel was disappointed at the news.
“We worked so hard to avoid a listing,” she said. “I guess losing a little with the threatened status rather than losing a lot with the endangered status is something of a compromise.”
She said Dolores and other counties may try a legal challenge.
“We are concerned what effect it will have on private landowners and our oil and gas industry,” Kibel said. “We did a lot in our land management plans to avoid harming the bird’s habitat and that was not considered.”
Stein said the threatened listing gives landowners and managers more flexibility in management practices to protect the bird.
Specifically the threatened category allows for a 4D rule provision, Stein said, which gives blanket exemptions for “takes” of the bird.
A “taking” is a permit negotiated between the landowner and USFW biologists for inadvertent habitat disturbance or killing of the bird due to farming, or some other activity.
The specifics of the 4D rule will be worked out in 2015, and will include public meetings and comment.
The listing decision will have no impact upon many of the area’s agricultural landowners. Those who had entered into Candidate Conservation Agreements need only to continue to abide by those agreements to fully comply with the ESA.
Other landowners who participate in the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service programs – including the Sage-Grouse Initiative, Working Lands for Wildlife and the Conservation Reserve Program – may continue to implement the practices covered by those programs with the knowledge that they’ll be consistent with the ESA.
“USDA’s partnerships with farmers and ranchers in voluntary efforts such as the Sage Grouse Initiative and the Conservation Reserve Program are helping to support both sound wildlife habitat management and agricultural production,” said Jason Weller, Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief. “USDA is committed to working with producers to voluntarily plan and deliver conservation activities that will help them be productive and give them certainty that they are in compliance with the ESA.”
Hickenlooper and local officials in Colorado sought to delay the Gunnison grouse decision, saying voluntary steps could help save the bird.
After Ashe’s announcement, the environmental group WildEarth Guardians said threatened status was inadequate and the bird should have been granted more stringent endangered status.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.