Too little, too late? Activists call for halt of development, grazing in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat to pull bird from ‘extinction vortex’

Gunnison sage-grouse, listed as a threatened species, face a ‘grim’ future if drastic action is not taken, contend conservationists who are alarmed by waning numbers.

The Gunnison sage-grouse is nearing the point of no return, conservationists say, calling for more drastic measures to protect the bird’s dwindling habitat.

The three-year running average population of strutting males has hit an all-time low, and there are now fewer than 1,600 birds, according to data Colorado Parks and Wildlife provides conservation groups under an agreement. The agreement allows conservation groups to see summaries, but not to share the raw data. Groups including Western Watersheds Project announced the summaries they were provided last week.

The greatest number of Gunnison sage-grouse can be found in the Gunnison Basin, but other, smaller populations hover around 200 birds or less, Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said.

In satellite populations such as Cerro Summit, the three-year average is far less than even that.

Sustaining the species requires about 5,000 birds, with habitat continuity and adequate grass cover. Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity are among groups calling upon public lands management agencies to halt human activity that is disrupting grouse habitat — livestock grazing, housing development and new oil and gas leases.

“There’s a lot of concern that those satellite populations are already in an extinction vortex from which they can’t escape. … We need to do the most we can to help them rebound to healthy levels,” Molvar said.

“It seems clear we are below the minimum 5,000 bird population that has been estimated by science. It’s time to think about some stronger conservation measures than we’ve seen this far.”

The Gunnison sage-grouse is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Conservationists had hoped for an endangered listing, while state and local governments wanted to preclude a listing, and implemented measures to help save the grouse — from a multi-county agreement, to seasonal road closures during grouse mating season, and the Gunnison Basin Sage-grouse Strategic Committee.

The efforts haven’t been enough, said Clait Braun, the former CPW avian program manager, who in the 1990s discovered the Gunnison sage-grouse was a separate species.

“All small populations are down to less than 36 birds and some are down to zero,” he said.

“If you only have 1,500 birds left, maybe 1,600, and populations like Crawford are zero, it’s really grim. It’s toast for them. The only population that has a ghost of a chance is in the Gunnison Basin. But if you don’t get everyone in agreement, they’re going to be toast, too. The question is, is it too late?”

Braun said CPW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, counties, stockgrowers and other stakeholders are not taking the threats seriously enough and need to come together before it is too late for the Gunnison sage-grouse.

Efforts to reach the Gunnison County commissioner who once sat on the sage-grouse working committee were unsuccessful as of deadline, as were efforts to reach a member of the stockgrowers association and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

CPW said millions of dollars have been poured into decades of work to change the grouse population’s downward trajectory.

“Unfortunately, we have not been able to do that over all these years,” CPW Area Wildlife Manager for Montrose Renzo DelPiccolo said.

USFWS took over species management once the bird was listed as threatened and is putting forth a recovery plan detailing action CPW has already taken, to varying levels. Braun and others deemed the USFWS’ draft recovery plan last year as insufficient: The draft document when it was first released contemplated removing the sage-grouse as a threatened species once the Gunnison Basin population hit 3,700.

“It’s very clear to all of us we have just yet to figure out the smoking gun. To be able to say that certain folks, or groups, know what needs to be done is a little disconcerting. I believe our best and brightest have been doing everything within the bounds of reasonableness and trying to test what we’ve done. Nothing has been shown to be very successful,” DelPiccolo said.

Gunnison sage-grouse population numbers are not where CPW would like to see them, he added.

But with sufficient political will, grouse habitat could be improved, Molvar said.

“The grazing that’s been permitted has allowed 50% removal of total, annual production of the grasses, which is way more livestock grazing than you should allow, even in non-sage grouse habitat, if you’re trying to maintain healthy grass, never mind the 7 inches of cover grouse need to hide from predators,” he said.

The state has used “idle speculation” that existing habitat cannot produce 7-inch grass, but that’s not so, Molvar said.

“It’s time to stop talking about what is convenient for the industry and to start talking about what the Gunnison sage-grouse needs to survive. These political considerations are functionally irrelevant. When a species is on the brink of extinction, the economics of that extinction need to take a back seat,” he said.

Braun, who grew up with cattle, said he is not “anti-cow,” but there is a need to reserve areas just for Gunnison sage-grouse now, and worry about other uses later. He, too, sees a lack of will: Decision-makers based in Denver or Washington, D.C., had the recovery plan forced on them through lawsuits.

“But is it too late? That’s the question,” Braun said.

“It’s going to be gone and it’s one-of-a-kind. It is a unique species found only in the Gunnison Basin now. … So what are you going to do? And no one seems to be excited about it. The people should be jumping up and down and saying, ‘What’s going on here?’”

DelPiccolo said conservationists’ suggestions are difficult to implement when the outcome is not clear. A number of grouse habitats that are not being grazed haven’t shown promise for the bird, he said.

“We have not been able to see positive results in those habitats that maybe we would, if we had the smoking gun, if we knew exactly what it was those grouse were missing and what was causing the decline,” he said.

Molvar said CPW’s rangewide conservation plan dates from 2005 and has not been updated with current science. The hope is the USFWS’ developing recovery plan will be based on science, rather than on political compromise “but these are dark times for conservation,” Molvar said.

In addition to grazing restrictions to preserve sage-grouse grass cover, efforts need to be applied to stop habitat fragmentation, including by denying new oil and gas lease permits or housing developments, he said.

“Clearly up to this point, the problems that the Gunnison sage-grouse has faced have been human-caused, for many decades. The first step is to stop doing the things that further destroy or degrade these habitats,” Molvar said.

The next step would be to restore the degraded habitats by, among other steps, removing barbed wire, burying overhead power lines; plus reconnecting isolated populations.

“It’s just not enough to keep sage-grouse habitats in their present condition. The present condition is causing the bird to be at the brink of extinction. We have to start doing things differently,” said Molvar.

He and DelPiccolo were on the same page, with respect to what happens to the ecosystem when a species is lost.

Molvar likened extinction to destroying one component of a finely tuned engine without being able to obtain a replacement — the engine won’t function properly, and may not function at all.

“Losing anything, whether it’s a grouse, or a plant, or a tree, a stream, has a negative effect on an ecosystem that has evolved for millions of years,” DelPiccolo said.

He disputed allegations that agencies responsible for managing public wildlife haven’t done enough for the Gunnison sage-grouse.

“We have given constant attention to this bird,” he said.

“The bottom line is, what we are doing now is not enough,” Molvar said. “We need to do more to preserve Gunnison sage-grouse habitat than we have been for the last several decades. For the people who are saying we are doing all we can, those people need to redouble their efforts and do more.”

Braun issued a dire warning.

“It’s really, really grim. I don’t have any answers. I know what can be done, but I don’t think anybody is willing to do it,” he said.

“Go get your pictures now, because I think in five years, you won’t have birds to take pictures of. I’m not sure they’re going to persist,” Braun said.

“ … People can find ways to move forward, but everyone has to be on the same page.”

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

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