The U.S. Department of the Interior will expand efforts with state, local and tribal governments to map lands that are vital to the survival of the greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird that inhabits much of the West, including northern Summit County.
The new efforts will take place as officials guide and manage new energy projects, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced Friday.
Salazar made the announcement in conjunction with a finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that, based on scientific data, the greater sage grouse warrants the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but that listing the species at this time is precluded by the need to address higher-priority species first.
The greater sage-grouse will be placed on the candidate list for future action, meaning the species would not receive statutory protection under the ESA, and states would continue to be responsible for managing the bird.
"The sage grouse's decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century," Salazar said. "This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species' survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources."
Adding the species to the candidate list will allow the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies an opportunity to work with private landowners on conservation efforts, including financial and technical assistance, and the ability to develop conservation agreements with landowners. One such agreement was signed last month in western Idaho, encompassing an area of over half a million acres.
Moffat County rancher Wes McStay said he's hopeful the bird's new status as an ESA candidate will halt the population declines and habitat loss in his area over the past 50 years, as oil and gas development have spread.
"It's habitat fragmentation, noise, traffic, pipelines, well pads, invasive weeds," McStay said, describing the changes he's witnessed to the northwestern Colorado landscape. "Overgrazing is a big problem too. We have lots of grouse on our ranch, but there are other ranches that don't. Hopefully, there won't be too many new regulations, but if they enforce the existing ones, that would be a good step."
According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), its members currently work with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to establish sage grouse management plans. The plans include timing limitations to avoid impacts to the species, especially during nesting and breeding; rigorous survey work which has lead to habitat enhancements; and employee awareness and educational programs relating to the sage grouse and its habitat.
"The decision regarding sage grouse will definitely have an impact on our member companies," COGA president Tisha Conoly Schuller said. "I hope that many of the steps taken by our industry to protect the sage grouse habitat will minimize the impact of the listing on our industry and the communities in which we operate."
Greater sage-grouse are found in 11 Western states, including Colorado. They currently occupy approximately 56 percent of their historical range.
Scientists predict many local sage grouse populations may disappear within the next 30 to 100 years, with remaining fragmented populations more vulnerable to extinction in the long term, if habitat loss trends continue as they have since the 1960s. However, the sage grouse population as a whole remains large and is distributed across a vast portion of the western United States. Thus, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists determined that other species facing more immediate and severe threats of extinction must take priority for listing actions under the ESA.
"The bird itself is amazing, and they're worth keeping. But it's also an indicator species, and it's telling us a lot about what kind of stewards we've been of the sagebrush steppe," McStay said.
The Service will review the status of the sage grouse annually, as it does with all ESA candidate species.
"(The candidate listing) is a red flag that our air, water and land in the West are in trouble," said Erin Robertson, biologist with the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems. "I think this decision will help bring balance back in the West."