SALT LAKE CITY — A decision Wednesday to list the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act will ultimately hurt the bird more than it will help it, undercutting local efforts to protect the species and instilling tedious layers of government bureaucracy to overcome.
That sentiment, voiced by Utah wildlife officials and echoed by members of the state's congressional delegation, came in swift reaction to the announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the bird is receiving a designation as "threatened" under the federal act.
“Placing the bird under the oversight of the federal government will greatly reduce our ability to help the bird,” said Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Director Greg Sheehan.
Found mostly in southwestern Colorado, a small population of Gunnison sage grouse also live in San Juan County in southeastern Utah.
Sheehan said the decision invokes roadblocks to state action to help the species.
For example, Sheehan said if the Utah agency wants to partner with a landowner to complete a habitat project to help the grouse, it can't launch into the project and do the work. Instead, the project will now have to go through a federal review process that Sheehan calls “tedious and time-consuming.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the action is an example of the federal government deciding it knows better than local people working to help the species.
"This is yet another case of the federal government thinking it is smarter and more capable than the states and communities — a notion I flatly reject,” said Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee.
Sheehan said the decision ignores work that has been underway since 1996 to help Gunnison sage grouse in San Juan County. Those efforts include the establishment of local working groups that have brought landowners, local government officials, state and federal agencies, as well as universities together to work on cooperative research and habitat projects to help the birds.
“We’re disappointed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that extensive conservation efforts in Utah and Colorado aren’t sufficient enough to protect the species,” Sheehan said. “The USFWS hasn’t given many of these efforts the time needed to show the efforts work.”
The decision, however, brought praise from Defenders of Wildlife.
“The federal government announced protections for Gunnison sage grouse, and not a moment too soon. The remaining birds are struggling to survive and continue to face habitat loss and degradation across their range," said Mark Salvo, director of federal lands conservation for the organization.
He added that the listing under the Endangered Species Act will give land managers added tools to help the species.
It's estimated that there are just 4,600 of the birds existing in seven distinct population units in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The bird occupies only 7 percent of its historic range because of a range of threats that include habitat fragmentation brought on by wildfires, fencing, power lines and development.
Only about 120 of the birds exist in southeastern Utah in San Juan County, where an active, on-the-ground conservation effort has been underway since the mid-1990s, before the bird was even recognized as a distinct species in 2000.
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.
Utah biologists conducted monitoring from 1972 to 1999 that shows the population has declined in San Juan County by as much as 75 percent.
An economic analysis prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and released a year ago shows a listing will cost as much as $12 million over the next 20 years.
The listing impacts 348,353 acres in the Dove Creek Monticello Unit, which includes a section of San Juan County, and 245,179 acres in the Pinion Mesa Unit which creeps into a small section of Grand County.