Guest opinion: Clock ticking on greater sage grouse decision
The Gunnison sage grouse has been in the news with a recent listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. A lot of Colorado stakeholders are frustrated with the federal government’s decision, because they felt that real local progress was being made on conserving that bird’s habitat, which exists only in a few counties in southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah.
But the clock is also ticking on the greater sage grouse and on local efforts to prevent listing of this related — but distinct — species in the 11 Western states (including northwestern Colorado) where it is found. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make a decision by September 2015 on whether to list the greater sage grouse.
Unless the 11 states can demonstrate that meaningful conservation measures are in place sufficient to protect the bird (and its habitat), then it may also be listed. While efforts to prevent the listing are going strong in many of the other 10 states, Colorado’s efforts have moved in fits and starts.
In spite of the recent decision on the Gunnison sage grouse, federal officials are saying that a listing can still be avoided for the greater sages grouse. That was the message coming from Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Neil Kornze, director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, who spoke in December 2014 at a Boise conference for land managers, range conservationists, biologists and other scientists working to protect the sage grouse.
In other states in the region, federal agencies are already working closely on plans to protect the sage grouse. In both Wyoming and Montana, stakeholders have worked to craft state plans to protect greater sage grouse habitat.
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One of the biggest impediments to Colorado’s efforts, at least judging from various published reports, is that some local governments and some oil and gas industry groups have expressed concerns and put up resistance seemingly fearful of new limits on energy development. But a recent study from the Western Values Project found that less than one-fifth of the most important habitat for greater sage grouse overlap with areas of high potential for oil and gas development. The study also looked at development potential from other energy sources on these lands, including coal, solar and wind, and the overlap with important habitat for greater sage grouse was similarly minor.
A broad set of stakeholders in Colorado even agree that it would be best to avoid a listing. And most agree that dithering is the last thing we can afford to do. Nonetheless, Colorado has yet to get everyone to the table. This needs to happen quickly. We cannot let the listing of the Gunnison sage grouse derail or impede efforts to secure real protection for the greater sage grouse.
Instead, the listing of the Gunnison species should compel the State of Colorado and other stakeholders to act quickly on the greater sage grouse. Other states are moving ahead, and Colorado should not be left behind. This iconic Western species deserves meaningful protection and there is simply no time for excuses and no reason to delay. Colorado must act now and engage federal agencies, local governments and other key stakeholders on developing a strong, science-based plan that will provide greater sage grouse with lasting, certain protections.
Pete Kolbenschlag is a strategic consultant who works primarily on public lands, energy and conservation issues with his company, Mountain West Strategies of Paonia.
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