WASHINGTON (CN) – Environmental groups are aligning to challenge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s final determination to list the Gunnison sage-grouse as a threatened species, which would allow for rules environmentalists characterize as “pro-industry.” The Endangered Species Act (ESA) determination was announced last week but the regulation has not been published.
The USFWS said in its announcement that it would be proposing a special 4(d) rule in the near future to allow harm to the birds under certain circumstances, including ranching and agricultural practices and commercial and residential development. The 4(d) exemption under the ESA only applies to species with a threatened status.
“Downgrading the grouse to ‘threatened’ will let the agency propose a special pro-industry rule to continue allowing activities threatening the grouse’s habitat, including oil and gas development, livestock grazing and urban sprawl,” the the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) said in its response to the announcement.
The agency agreed in 2000 that the grouse needed protection, but declined to act. The USFWS was sued by the CBD, the WildEarth Guardians (WEG) and eight other environmental groups on behalf of the grouse in 2006 for violations of the ESA. In 2011, a settlement agreement resulted in a court-ordered work plan to speed listing decisions for hundreds of species, including the grouse.
The agency proposed the grouse for endangered species status in January 2013, with 1.7 million acres of critical habitat. The final listing as a threatened species with the critical habitat designation reduced by more than a quarter million acres has alarmed environmentalists who feel the birds need the highest level of protection.
Historically, the grouse were found in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, but now are found in only seven small populations in southeast Utah and southwest Colorado, which represents a 90 percent reduction in their range. The birds are known for their elaborate courtship dances and booming calls, and are seen as an iconic prairie species.
In January 2013, when the endangered listing was proposed, there were fewer than 5000 of the birds remaining. “Six of the seven populations of Gunnison sage-grouse have population sizes low enough to induce inbreeding depression, and all seven may be losing their adaptive potential,” the agency said in its 2013 proposed listing rule.
Despite its earlier view, the agency now maintains that conservation efforts in the region are sufficient to justify the reduced listing status and reduced protections for the birds.
A coalition of western environmental groups has joined the WildEarth Guardians for an expected legal action to challenge the decision, according the WEG’s press release.
The coalition includes grouse expert Dr. Clait Braun, with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “I have been researching and monitoring Gunnison sage grouse populations and habitat for almost 40 years,” Dr. Braun was quoted as saying in the WEG’s statement. “Today, Gunnison sage grouse stand at the precipice of extinction … and existing conservation plans and strategies are inadequate to stop this decline. Only science-based approaches to conservation will save Gunnison sage grouse, and it past time to let science dictate appropriate conservation measures.”
The listing process for the grouse issues from the Denver-based Mountain-Prairie Region of the USFWS. According to the CBD, this division has “repeatedly bowed to political pressure in recent months, having denied much-needed Endangered Species Act protection to the Montana grayling, wolverine and two Rocky Mountain plants.”
The final listing and critical habitat regulation will be effective 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register.
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