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Lawsuit filed to protect Gunnison sage grouse

Environmental groups say grazing hurts threatened bird

Two environmental groups have sued federal land and wildlife agencies claiming they have failed to protect the Gunnison sage grouse from harmful livestock grazing in the Gunnison Basin.

The lawsuit was filed Dec. 7 by the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watershed Project against the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The rare Gunnison sage grouse, a separate species from the greater sage grouse, is known for the elaborate mating dance rituals by males in clearings called “leks” located deep in sagebrush habitat.

Fewer than 5,000 birds remain, with most of the population located in the Gunnison Basin and smaller satellite areas with a potential for smaller number of birds scattered in Southwest Colorado, including in the San Miguel Basin, and Dove Creek and Monticello, Utah, areas.

The endangered bird’s sagebrush habitat has been impacted by cattle grazing, development, and the oil and gas industry, and the bird listed was threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014.

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs argue that not enough action has been done to protect the bird from grazing impacts in the Gunnison Basin, the main population center.

Without more protection there, the species will continue to decline toward eventual extinction, said attorneys Talasi Brooks, an attorney for Western Watersheds Project, and Ryan Shannon of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Gunnison sage grouse is in sharp decline and will certainly go extinct if immediate action isn’t taken to save it,” said Shannon, a staff attorney at the center. “The BLM and the Forest Service need to step up before it’s too late and protect these beautiful grouse from livestock grazing. Now is not time to twiddle thumbs.”

The lawsuit challenges the agencies’ continued reliance on a 2013 conservation agreement that was supposed to protect the grouse from undue harm from grazing and other activities.

Plaintiffs claim the conservation agreement has failed to protect the grouse, whose numbers in the basin have plummeted to historic lows. They argue the federal agencies responsible for the bird’s recovery have failed to carry out many of the agreement’s conservation measures, which they claim are “outdated and inadequate.”

Retaining a strong Gunnison Basin population is key for supplementing satellite populations that are also struggling, Brooks said in an interview with The Journal.

“Gunnison Basin is the main source population to prevent other populations from blinking out,” she said.

Brooks said for livestock grazing to have less impact, grasses in sage grouse habitat should be kept at a minimum of 7 inches, instead of the 4 to 6 inches currently being allowed. Taller grass provides better cover and food sources for the bird.

Agencies that manage federal grazing allotments could also reduce allotments and herds more, advocates for the bird say, and could require that more pastures in occupied habitat be avoided during spring when breeding is taking place.

In total, there are 620,616 acres of occupied and unoccupied critical habitat in the Gunnison Basin, 505,909 acres designated as occupied. The lawsuit addresses concerns on management of 395,000 of the 505,909 acres of occupied Gunnison sage grouse habitat on federal land in the Gunnison Basin.

“There are actions that can be taken if they wanted to get serious about protecting the bird,” Brooks said. “The way it is being managed now, the species is heading for extinction. It’s a unique bird that fills a unique ecological niche and does not deserve to be eradicated by human activities when it could be preserved relatively easily.”

Population is dropping

Since the conservation agreement was adopted, the Gunnison sage grouse population in the Gunnison Basin has declined dramatically from 3,149 in 2013 to only 1,667 in 2020 — a more than 40% decline in just six years, according to lawsuit plaintiffs. Rangewide, the species has declined by nearly 50%.

Surveys of the male birds on their “leks,” or mating grounds, in the Gunnison Basin conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife detected only 363 males in 2019 — down from 848 in 2013, when the agreement was developed. While numbers rebounded slightly in 2020, the species is still in dire straits.

“Many of the federal lands leased for livestock grazing in Gunnison sage grouse habitat have been failing basic land-health standards as a direct result of heavy livestock grazing,” said Brooks, of Western Watersheds Project. “If we’re serious about recovering this spectacular and embattled bird, we’re going to need to address the damage being done by private cows on these public lands.”

The Gunnison sage grouse’s survival hinges on the fate of the Gunnison Basin population, the only truly viable population where the vast majority of remaining sage grouse are found, plaintiffs said in a news release.

“Unless action is taken to ensure the survival and recovery of this critical population, little stands between the species and extinction,” the release states.

Prolonged drought and predation also impact the Gunnison sage grouse populations, observers say.

Tres Rios Office shares protection efforts

The BLM does not comment on ongoing litigation.

In Nov. 2019, Nate West, a BLM wildlife biologist with the Tres Rios Field Office, which manages Gunnison sage grouse habitat in some satellite populations, responded to questions submitted by The Journal about habitat management. The Tres Rios office does not include the Gunnison Basin that is the focus of the lawsuit.

West said conservation measures identified in the Tres Rios Resource Management Plan identify timing restrictions for disruptive activities, noise level restrictions for activities during the lekking season, and lek protection areas.

The Tres Rios management plan also contains oil and gas leasing stipulations that make all occupied habitat No Surface Occupancy. Any new development would have to occur outside of occupied habitat. In the management plan the Fish and Wildlife Service stated:

“Implementation of conservation measures and use stipulations, will reduce multiple threats to Gunnison sage grouse and could restore the species to formerly occupied range through proposed habitat improvement projects. Specifically, conservation measures under the oil and gas availability decision will provide Gunnison sage grouse habitat protections from direct and indirect effects.”

Other local efforts including improving habitat with conifer removal, riparian restoration, fence removal and replacement, vegetation monitoring, habitat mapping, sagebrush assessment, and predator inventory and monitoring.

The BLM Tres Rios Field Office has removed 5,649 acres of pinon and juniper, 130 acres of tamarisk, West said. Seven miles of fencing has been removed or replaced with wildlife-friendly fencing, as of Nov. 2019. The field office has completed habitat mapping on 71,034 acres in Dry Creek Basin and confirmed 22,365 acres of that mapping on the ground.

On grazing in the Tres Rios Field office area, officials meet with grazing permittees annually to discuss their allotments and grazing strategies, West said. BLM monitors resource conditions to ensure allotments meet land health standards.

“In the Dry Creek Basin, the BLM works in close coordination with private landowners, and many of our (conservation) projects would not be possible without support from local landowners,” West stated.

As of November 2019, the BLM did not have any active grazing allotments in occupied habitat in the Dove Creek population. In 2014, the BLM denied an application for a permit to drill on a sage grouse lek.

Lek sites in the Dove Creek population have been hard to find, West said. As of November 2019, the Tres Rios Field Office has not seen any sage grouse on any leks in Dove Creek since around 2014.

Officials with Tres Rios conduct scat searches in the spring and track surveys in the winter when snow conditions permit. Between 2018 and November 2019, no scat or tracks were detected.

West stated that future plans for habitat improvement include continued conifer removal, sagebrush enhancement, and riparian restoration. In November and December 2019, the BLM focused a Christmas Tree cutting program this to encourage the public to “go cut a tree” in Gunnison sage grouse habitat to encourage more sagebrush growth.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com

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