SALT LAKE CITY — Brilliantly plumed and about the size of a chicken, the imperiled Gunnison sage grouse is being proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act, a move praised by environmentalists and bemoaned by Utah officials.
Only about 120 of the birds exist in Utah in the southeastern section of the state in San Juan County, where an active, on-the-ground conservation effort has been under way since the mid-1990s, before the bird was even recognized as a distinct species in 2000.
“We did everything we could to preclude a listing under the Endangered Species Act, but we were fighting an uphill battle,” said Kevin Bunnell, wildlife section chief of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
In its announcement of the proposed listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the bird is in danger of extinction, and in 2006 the National Audubon Society named it as one of North America’s 10 most endangered birds.
Biologists believe the bird has lost 90 percent of its historic habitat and now exists in only seven distinct populations.
The bird is known as an “indicator” species for shrub-steppe habitat, meaning if it is not doing well, the entire ecosystem that supports it is also in peril.
Monitoring by Utah biologists from 1972 to 1999 — based on counts of breeding pairs in San Juan County — showed declines in populations by as much as 75 percent.
Habitat fragmentation has been a key element compromising the bird’s ability to thrive, brought on by increased roads, power lines, reduction in riparian areas and recreation.
The quality of sagebrush habitat has also rapidly spiraled downward through drought, livestock grazing and increasingly, oil and gas exploration, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
“We are thrilled that the Gunnison sage grouse is finally getting the protection it needs to survive,” said Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director.
It is estimated that fewer than 4,600 of the ground-nesting birds exist in neighboring western Colorado, and in its proposal, the federal agency is poised to designate 1.7 million acres in the two states as critical habitat.
The move is troublesome to Bunnell, who said the state has already been involved in extensive range-wide conservation efforts for the bird.
“We are never pleased to see a listing in this state because it takes management away from our state government and puts it in the hands of the federal government,” he said. “It is hard to see how much more can be done than what has been done.”
A range-wide conservation plan adopted by both Colorado and Utah has actively worked to set aside land for the bird.
In San Juan County, $1.2 million in state, federal and Farm Services Agency funding has been spent in a conservation reserve plan, involving 32,667 acres that have been enrolled in the effort.
Particularly vexing is the fact that in San Juan County, 95 percent of the bird’s habitat is on private land, with owners given incentives to participate in conservation efforts.
Commission Chairman Bruce Adams said he is worried about the listing’s impacts to private landowners.
“The Endangered Species Act listing is a taking of private property rights,” he said. “If they are going to list it, they need to compensate landowners.”
San Juan County is Utah’s largest in landmass, but only 8 percent of it is not owned by the federal government, he said.
That disparity of ownership leaves private property owners already up against a wall when it comes to farming, ranching and developing minerals.
“It is a huge detriment to the private property owner in San Juan County,” he said. “They ought to be prepared to compensate the landowner if they are going to take away their rights.”
The proposal to list the Gunnison sage grouse is part of settlement agreements the federal agency reached with the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians.
The federal agency will schedule a series of public meetings to solicit input and accept comments on its proposal through March 12.
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