By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The finding was monumental, and thousands of birders flocked to Gunnison to see the new species — one that, upon discovery, was already critically threatened.
It seemed only natural, then, that Young and others would push to have the grouse listed under the Endangered Species Act as a way to protect its remaining habitat.
But that wasn't the case.
Instead, she continued to lead a grouse working group known as the Gunnison Basin Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group — originally formed in 1995 — that comprised city, county and federal agencies as well as environmental groups, local ranchers and area residents dedicated to the conservation of the Gunnison sage grouse. The organization had worked for two years on something called the Gunnison Sage Grouse Conservation Plan, which was approved in 1998.
Their efforts may have helped keep the bird off the list when it was reviewed in 2006 — though that decision could be reconsidered following a lawsuit filed in 2006 by several environmental groups against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"At one point I really believed the bird met all of the biological criteria in terms of risk for it to be listed as an endangered species," she says. "That was after a three-year drought, and I thought imminent extinction was possible without extra conservation."
But then the drought broke, the local working group started working harder, and the Board of County Commissioners in Gunnison established the Gunnison County Strategic Sage Grouse Committee, a group of individuals who all have authority within their divisions — including a county sage-grouse coordinator and representatives from the DOW and the Bureau of Land Management. Working in tandem with the GCSSGC, which has a little more political clout, Young feels the birds really do have a chance.
"Now I'm not so certain whether [endangered species protection] would be beneficial," Young says, adding that she is encouraged that so many people from so many perspectives and motivations are working together.
"A huge part of this has just been getting the public to increasingly understand the issues," Young says, "which I think we have done. No one really knows what would happen if the bird is listed as endangered, the level of federal involvement in the issue or how it would be approached. I think the Endangered Species Act is probably one of the strongest pieces of legislation for bio-diversity in the world. But it has become pretty controversial and politicized, and the question here is, is it the best tool for recovery? And I honestly don't know the answer for that."
The Gunnison Basin stretches over 8,000 square miles of western Colorado, extending from the Continental Divide all the way to the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers near Grand Junction. The largest cities in the basin are Montrose (population 14,153), Delta (population 7,827) and Gunnison (population 5,271). It's a mountainous region, where cattle ranching and mining are the two largest industries. But tourism is big as well, and since the early '90s, more and more people have been moving in to the beautiful area or buying second homes there, where land values aren't as high as Aspen or Telluride. With that increased development has come an increased desire — often from surprising sources — to protect the native ecosystem and its wildlife.
Rancher Gary Haufler can remember walking out his back door years ago and nearly falling over Gunnison sage grouse, they were so plentiful. Though he questions just how endangered the bird actually is — and what exactly is causing it harm — Haufler is emblematic of many ranchers in the area, who are now helping lead the effort to save the bird. The reason: They don't want the federal government telling them what to do.
"I don't think listing the bird is going to help the bird," says Haufler, who raises cattle on a ranch near the grouse leks. "I think that we can do more for preserving the bird and assuring its survival with local efforts than we can if the federal government steps in and takes over and ties our hands. The feds have their rules, and either you live by them or you don't. I think that's severely limiting."
In other words, if the bird is listed as endangered, developers and ranchers like Haufler would have to go through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before they could do anything on their land. To assuage these fears, Fish and Wildlife has been working with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to arrange Candidate Conservation Agreement Assurances. These agreements allow DOW officials onto a rancher's property to survey and determine what areas need to be protected and what areas can be built on.
"With the CCAAs, non-federal landowners are making a commitment of twenty years, and in turn they get assurances that if the bird is listed in the future, they will not have any additional management requirements," explains Al Pfister, western Colorado supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ecological Services Office.
But Gunnison County Sage Grouse Conservation Coordinator Jim Cochran, a rancher himself, says that although the Colorado Division of Wildlife has analyzed nearly forty properties, not one CCAA has successfully been seen through to a certificate of inclusion in the program. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for its part, reports that it has only seen data on two of those properties and is still working on some issues with the DOW to expedite the process.