New suit takes aim at 2013 sage-grouse agreement

The Gunnison sage-grouse. 

Federal agencies have not done enough to protect the threatened Gunnison sage-grouse and the habitat critical to species survival from the effects of grazing in the Gunnison Basin, a fresh lawsuit alleges.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project filed suit Monday against the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

The suit contends that a 2013 conservation agreement has not protected the grouse from “undue harm” from grazing and other activities in the Gunnison Basin, where the bird’s population is said to teeter on the edge of extinction.

“The Gunnison sage-grouse is in sharp decline and will certainly go extinct if immediate action isn’t taken to save it,” Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

“The Bureau of Land Management 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.”

An answer to the suit has not been filed.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction on the agencies that prevents them from authorizing grazing in occupied, critical habitat on federal lands in the basin until an adequate and legally valid consultation is done.

They contend in their suit that the Candidate Conservation Agreement, or CCA, of 2013 is anything but adequate; that it has not been consistently applied or enforced — and provisions of it “have never been based on on the best available science.”

The groups say the defendants have failed to ensure the CCA does not jeopardize the grouse, or adversely modify its critical habitat in violation of the Endangered Species Act, under which the bird was listed as threatened in 2014.

Under that 2014 listing, 1.4 million acres, more than half-million of them in the Gunnison Basin, were designated as critical habitat.

Fish and Wildlife concluded that although authorized activities such as grazing could harm the sage-grouse, implementing the CCA for the basin would not threaten its continued existence there, the plaintiffs allege.

But the conservation measures in the CCA were based on poor science and the Fish and Wildlife’s associated biological opinion is “flawed” in that it does not adequately account for the effects of grazing and relies on “unsupported assumptions” about inadequate conservation measures, the lawsuit further alleges. The plaintiffs also argue that the CCA’s impacts on grouse recovery was not adequately considered.

For the agencies to continue authorizing livestock grazing threatens the grouse’s existence, changes its critical habitat for the worse and therefore is “the unauthorized take of Gunnison sage-grouse in violation of the ESA,” Shannon wrote in the suit.

The agencies also have not implemented the conservation measures or followed reporting requirements, the filing contends.

The bird’s numbers dropped from about 3,149 in 2013 to 1,667 this year, according to the filing.

At the time of the CCA, the Gunnison sage-grouse was already reduced to seven small populations in Colorado, including a small number in Montrose County, and in southeastern Utah.

The biggest population remains in the Gunnison Basin and that population is critical to species survival and recovery — the other populations are too small to sustain themselves.

The Montrose County population may already be extirpated, per the suit. The Cerro Summit/Cimarron /Sims Mesa group had no males counted on leks (mating areas) this year. The plaintiffs also fear the small population near Dove Creek is extirpated, too, with no males counted this year or last.

After the Gunnison Basin, the largest grouse population is in San Miguel County, and there the birds’ numbers are in steep decline.

The grouse at Poncha Pass have been “trending” toward extirpation for years, holding on only because of transplants from the Gunnison Basin group.

The plaintiffs pin the declining numbers on livestock grazing and residential development.

“The spiral toward extinction of the Gunnison sage-grouse, the failure of the agencies to carry out required conservation measures and reporting requirements, and new information regarding the effects of the activities covered under the Gunnison Basin CCA on Gunnison sage-grouse each require defendants to reinitiate ESA section 7 consultation on the Gunnison Basin CCA,” Shannon wrote in the lawsuit.

This failure amounts to a violation of the ESA and the defendants should be ordered to reinitiate consultation, plus be enjoined from authorizing grazing until a proper consultation has been done, Shannon wrote.

The plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Court to find the agencies’ failure to reinstitute a formal consultation on the biological opinion is arbitrary and capricious, as well as that the continued authorization of grazing activities under the Gunnison Basin CCA — and continued reliance on the flawed biological opinion —puts both the bird and its habitat in jeopardy.

Monday’s suit follows one the same plaintiffs brought, with other groups, over the BLM’s updated Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan. Filed in August, this action seeks to block the new RMP, in part because of alleged agency failure to adequately take into account sage-grouse recovery and survival.

In October, the plaintiffs also filed suit contending the RMP is legally void, because at the time it was approved BLM’s acting director was serving illegally.

A BLM spokesman strongly contested the points of that lawsuit.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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