Going, Going, Gone

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

But a courtroom is probably where the Gunnison sage grouse will end up.

"There needs to be more than just the working group and the strategic committee working to save the Gunnison sage grouse," says Sue Navy, a boardmember of the High Country Citizens Alliance, a Gunnison Valley conservation organization.

"What is lacking and what we feel the Endangered Species Act could provide is a lot more effort and energy behind the protection of the species," she says. "Right now, there isn't enough funding to do the things that are needed to protect habitat, whether it's purchasing conservation easements or land treatments. The county does not have that kind of money, so all the current regulations are a step in the right direction, but they can't go far enough without funding."

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.

Joshua Pollock, conservation director for the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver, also feels the Gunnison sage grouse is an eleventh-hour species.

"Our core mission is to protect endangered species and their habitat in the Southern Rockies," he says. "And one of our bottom-line, fundamental commitments is don't let anything go extinct if we can avoid it. The Gunnison sage grouse is one of the species in this region that is closer than anything else. It's an emergency-room situation. There are only a few thousand left; if we stand a chance of saving the Gunnison sage grouse from blinking out forever, it has got to be now."

Pollock's organization has joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, challenging the agency's April 18, 2006, determination that listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered or threatened wasn't warranted. The decision came down six years after two environmental groups, the Sagebrush Sea Campaign and the Institute for Wildlife Protection, asked the federal government to list the grouse.

Though the June 2006 lawsuit takes aim at several higher-ups in the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Interior, the real cause of the dispute stems from the actions of Julia MacDonald, a Bush administration appointee who resigned as deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks in the U.S. Department of Interior in May 2007. An internal review revealed that MacDonald had given government documents to industry lobbyists as well as overruled department biologists' findings that would have protected rare and endangered species. Dale Hall, director of Fish and Wildlife, called it "a blemish on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Interior."

In the wake of MacDonald's behavior, Interior agreed to review eight decisions that she had made on wildlife and land-use issues. But many felt that every decision ever made by the maligned appointee should be revisited, including any ruminations on the fate of the Gunnison sage grouse.

"Julia MacDonald reached out and severely scrutinized the recommendation of field staff and Fish and Wildlife Service biologists that the species is actually endangered and sought to reverse that finding based on non-biological criteria," explains Amy Atwood of the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs pushing to revisit the Gunnison sage grouse.

Atwood goes on to suggest that the local Colorado office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was so convinced of the need to list the grouse that they had prepared a press release to push for it — just before MacDonald intervened.

"And then the bird went from endangered to threatened, the critical habitat designation dropped off the radar, and then she became more and more interested, and eventually there was a reversal," explains Atwood.

A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson declined to comment on the case.

Atwood notes that the case is still pending before the Washington, D.C., District Court, with both sides caught up in motions for summary judgment to get all the facts in order before determining whether or not they are legal. But those pushing for listing fear there's not enough time for bureaucratic hand-wringing, that by the time everything finally gets worked out in court, there may not be any of the birds left to protect.

At the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site, the birders pack up their belongings and prepare to drive home — some to Durango, others to Colorado Springs, a few to Denver. But Magee veers off the main highway so he can check a few other sage grouse spots first. On a dirt road, he winds his Jeep through rugged, sand-colored bluffs. All around are ranches and homes, cattle and horses, deposited squarely in the middle of sage grouse habitat. The female sage grouse needs a nesting area of a two-mile radius from the breeding ground, and if there are any leks around here, the nesting areas would most certainly be affected by the presence of humans, their children biking through the brush, their cats and dogs turning up eggs. It's a fact of life in western Colorado, an inevitable overlapping of species.

Sisk-a-dee is more of an on-the-scene type of group, more at home on a lek than at a town hall meeting, and though Magee does hope the bird is eventually listed, it's not a cause that sends him clamoring for a soapbox. No one is really sure how things will change if the bird is protected, he says, noting that some think not much will change at all, that those involved with the working group and the strategic committee will merely become foot soldiers for a new general, but with additional funds. Either way, Magee will still lead groups of birders out in the pre-dawn hours to look at the birds every spring, and he'll still train college students to help the birds. As long as there are birds to help.

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