DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper made good Friday on his promise to sue the federal government over its hotly contested move to list the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
The Colorado Attorney General’s office filed a notice of intent to sue with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Fish and Wildlife Service director Daniel M. Ashe, arguing that the agency’s Nov. 12 decision to list the bird as threatened was flawed and failed to appreciate fully the impact of aggressive state and local conservation efforts.
“The Service failed to use the best available science in its listing decision,” said the six-page notice by Assistant Attorney General Lisa Reynolds. “The best available scientific data indicates that the species is not warranted for protection under the ESA because the Gunnison basin population, which comprises the vast majority of the species’ individuals and occupied range, is not in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.”
The decision to list the Gunnison sage grouse, found only in southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah, was closely watched by state officials and wildlife advocates who believe it may foreshadow the agency’s action on the greater sage grouse, which has a far larger habitat extending across 11 Western states.
A greater sage grouse listing could chill economic development throughout the rural West, including ranching, grazing and energy development.
Environmental and wildlife groups had blasted the agency’s decision on the Gunnison sage grouse, insisting it didn’t go far enough. Two groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watersheds Project, filed Nov. 20 a notice of intent to sue to compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird as endangered instead of threatened.
“Before this stunning reversal, the Fish and Wildlife Service had recognized the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species for 14 years,” said Amy Atwood, endangered species legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “The reversal is not based on more grouse in more places but rather on vague promises by those with a direct stake in destroying the grouse’s habitat. This is just too much of a fox guarding the henhouse situation.”
An estimated 4,705 Gunnison sage grouse remain in Colorado and Utah, about 3,975 of which live in Colorado’s Gunnison basin. The bird was declared a distinct species from the greater sage grouse in 2000.
Colorado and Utah officials point to massive undertakings at the state and local level to preserve sage grouse habitat. In Colorado, an estimated $40 million has been spent to protect the bird, including “voluntary conservation programs, land acquisition, research, monitoring activities, habitat treatments, translocations, and predator control,” the motion said.
“The Service accorded little weight to indications that the Gunnison basin population is stable and thriving, including the fact that the population now exceeds the targets set in the Rangewide Conservation Plan and the Gunnison basin lek counts are at an all-time high,” the motion said.
Mr. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, had vowed earlier this year to challenge the federal government in court if the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened or endangered.