Groups aim to prevent greater sage-grouse listing | SkyHiNews.com

Groups aim to prevent greater sage-grouse listing

Tonya Bina
tbina@skyhidailynews.com

Greater Sage-grouse Priority Map

A multi-agency effort to keep the greater sage grouse from being listed as federally threatened or endangered could mean greater land use restrictions in Grand County.

In December, a Bureau of Land Management report called the “Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures” compiled by a “Sage-grouse National Technical Team” made up of about 20 officials from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S Fish and Wildlife Survey and the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, released its strategy to protect sagebrush habitats across 11 western states.

The objective of the report was to develop “new or revised regulatory mechanisms” to ultimately try and stave off a federal endangered listing of the bird pending at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is scheduled to make a decision on sage grouse in 2015.

The report will feed into sage-grouse-specific Environmental Impact Statements, which the BLM is compiling in various western states, including at the Kremmling office. These statements, scheduled to be completed by 2014, could influence Fish and Wildlife’s decision on the sage-grouse listing.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already has ruled that a sage grouse listing is “warranted, but precluded,” meaning other species priorities have so-far trumped it from being listed.

Meanwhile, the goal of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 50 percent of sage grouse habitat across the region, is to keep sage grouse off of the threatened and endangered list.

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“Our goal is to make it unnecessary to list them,” said David Boyd, BLM spokesperson.

District Wildlife Manager of Colorado Parks and Wildlife Mike Crosby said maintaining local control on protections of the species would be far preferable to a federal listing, which would mean greater regulatory mandates handed down from the federal level without a true understanding of the priorities and real threats on the local level.

A Middle Park working group on the greater sage grouse has been addressing Middle Park sage brush habitat issues since 1999 and released a local plan for managing sage-grouse habitat in 2001.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a plan for protection of sage grouse habitat, and the Bureau of Land Management has been updating its land-use plan since 2007, with much of it devoted to sage grouse.

The BLM may now amend its land-use plan to incorporate strategies from the National Technical Team report and EIS, according to Boyd.

“We have had great working groups on these issues for a long time. Unfortunately, what’s happened, is when Endangered Species gets involved, we see things like lawsuits, and it gets pretty divisive,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Randy Hampton, who noted that although listings do have their place, in Colorado, sage-grouse populations have remained fairly steady.

“We’ve maintained cooperative relationships that have been built in communities over a long period of time. We want to be successful for the birds, and we believe we have that opportunity.”

Threats to sage-grouse can range from weed invasion from nearby roads crowding out native sagebrush, which sage-grouse rely on for about 90 percent of their diet, to new power lines, fences, energy development, home development as well as predators such as fox, raccoons, and ravens.

Hunting of sage grouse is still allowed but has been reduced to seven days, with a maximum possession limit of four birds.

“We don’t believe hunting impacts the population with the low number of hunters we have,” said Parks and Wildlife biologist Michelle Cowardin of the Parshall office.

Grand County hosts the third largest population of sage-grouse in the state, according to Cowardin.

Although population counts tend to fluctuate in Grand County, it has not yet been determined that populations are actually declining.

Sage grouse have been known to occupy about 22 percent of the total land in Grand County, with about 17 percent of sage grouse range being of the greatest conservation importance, according to Parks and Wildlife.

Although development a few years ago in Granby did affect the species, Cowardin said, with only one lek still remaining there, for the most part, Grand County sage brush habitat west of Granby into Summit County has fared well, according Crosby.

The greater sage grouse males and females have been known to return certain leks, or breeding grounds, every spring, no matter the distance. When Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison was built, for example, sage-grouse traveled to what used to be the location of a lek, gathering on top of the reservoir ice each spring for several years, Crosby said.

Middle Park has about 18 to 20 known active leks, many of them monitored by Colorado Parks and Wildlife since the 1950s, and the current estimated population of greater sage grouse is about 860 to 1,060 birds.

In an effort to protect habitat, Parks and Wildlife has been working with private landowners to set lands aside through conservation easements.

Because with each displacement of native sage brush, the end effect on the bird population could be “death by 1,000 little pieces,” Cowardin said.

– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603

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