Going, Going, Gone

Will the first new American bird discovered in a hundred years be the next to go extinct?

"If you read the rationale that the Fish and Wildlife Service gives for the CCAA program overall, it's that if lands were to be enrolled under that permit, it would preclude the need for listing the species," Cochran explains. "The species is off the list for candidate conservation. But people around here are well aware that the bird can very easily end up for reconsideration. The rational landowner in the Gunnison Basin knows that the bird is not off the radar screen; it's just currently glowing a little dimmer."

Cochran adds that the official position of Gunnison County, for whom he works, is to preclude the need for listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered.

"My opinion as a professional wildlife biologist is that locally led programs are more effective than a top-down program from D.C.," he says, citing the success of similar efforts in the re-establishment of the once-imperiled greater prairie chicken on Colorado's eastern plains as a huntable species ("Playing Chicken," November 2, 2000). "We can address local issues, deal with local landowners, deal with local agencies in a way that benefits the species and ensures that the community won't see the adverse effects of the Endangered Species Act. The act itself was admirable; the effects on communities has been pretty draconian."

Biologist Jessica Young helped list the Gunnison sage grouse as a separate species.
Biologist Jessica Young helped list the Gunnison sage grouse as a separate species.

Richard Bratton, a Gunnison-based attorney and the man behind Gunnison Rising, a proposed 1,800-acre residential and commercial development that would be the biggest project in the history of Gunnison, agrees. "No one really knows what would happen if the bird is listed," Bratton says. "It certainly would be one more level of bureaucracy not located here, and I think that's the ranchers' fear, no question."

Bratton is quick to point out that he's the guy whom "hard-core environmental groups" would label as the evil developer, carelessly expanding for the almighty dollar, natural consequences be damned. But he offers his track record as testimony to the opposite. A Gunnison resident since 1958 — he attended Western for four years before leaving town and then returning — Bratton has been involved with numerous environmental campaigns in the area, including an effort to establish a population of greater Canada geese lacking in the basin, serving on the advisory board for the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley — a group dedicated to enriching the area's resources — and chairing the Upper Colorado River Commission.

In his office, he keeps photographs of his home town of Salida, a slide show of unsightly sprawl down Main Street, McDonald's bleeding into Conoco into Checker Auto Parts into seedy hotels before culminating in a mammoth Wal-Mart. Bratton shakes his head in disappointment at what has become of the town where he grew up, pointing out the dangers of what happens when a developer is simply in it for the money.

"This project isn't something we just did on the back of a napkin," Bratton says about Gunnison Rising. "When they say the project is too big, I say it satisfies numerous needs for the community and that it's a way to plan responsibly for the future. Is it too big to have 458 acres of open land and wildlife habitat, too big for seven miles of open trail? People need to not be so knee-jerk in their reactions. Is it controversial around town? Oh, hell, yes. But I'm not doing this to get rich. I'm doing this because I think it's the responsible thing to do. We could have sold this property many times over, for houses, filling stations, motels, restaurants, but I wouldn't do it until I put together the package to do it right. When the dust settles and it's all done, my guess is we'll have a better habitat for sage grouse than exists today."

Bratton doesn't think the grouse should be listed as an endangered species until biologists figure out exactly what is causing the numbers to decrease. "They say maybe this is causing it, maybe that is causing it; my rancher friends tell me it's plain and simple predation," he says. "That's not good enough. Why not allow the county — which has been very responsible when it comes to the sage grouse — continue to do a fine job?"

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is also opposed to listing the grouse, says agency spokesman Joe Lewandowski. "We are certainly concerned about the status of the bird, so we've put a lot of resources into this effort. We know that the home range of the bird is far below what it was fifty years ago, one hundred years ago. We also know that...Colorado is much different than it was then. There's a lot more development, a lot more roads and people," he says. "It's a pretty complicated issue, and the biggest thing that we feel good about is that the Gunnison community has really stepped it up. All of the federal agencies are involved; there's a lot of people at the table working toward the same goal, and that's a great thing. I also think that a lot of people have learned from earlier environmental battles that a lot of money gets wasted in the courtroom."

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