- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2014

DENVER — Based on the furor that resulted when the news came down, there was little doubt why the Obama administration waited until after the midterm election to grant endangered species protection to the Gunnison sage grouse.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision Wednesday was immediately denounced by everyone from Democrats like Colorado Sens. Michael F. Bennet and Mark Udall to Republicans like Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz. The critics accused federal officials of failing to recognize the success of grass-roots conservation efforts to protect the grouse or the impact the move will have on local economic development.

The much-delayed federal ruling, arriving a week after the midterm elections, comes despite two decades of recovery efforts undertaken by state and local stakeholders in Colorado and Utah to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing of the ground-dwelling bird. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the bird qualifies as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, meaning it’s likely to be pushed to the brink of extinction soon, and that a broad swath of the two states should be set aside as critical habitat for the grouse.

Still looming is a much bigger fight in the West over the greater sage grouse, whose vast historic range extends across 11 Western states, primarily on federal lands. The agency is under a court order to rule on the greater sage grouse petition by September 2015.

After Wednesday’s designation, Colorado’s Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper raised the threat of legal action, saying in a statement, “We will do everything we can, including taking the agency to court, to fight this listing.”

On the other side were officials with WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, who argued that the FWS listing didn’t go far enough. The agency had proposed in January 2013 listing the ground-dwelling bird as “endangered” but downgraded the listing to “threatened” in Wednesday’s decision.

Erik Molvar, WildEarth Guardians wildlife biologist, said the group plans to file its own lawsuit challenging the designation later this month, arguing that the lower listing provides “a weaker level of protection.”

“This is a bird clearly on the brink of extinction, and we need the strongest level of protection in place to ensure those activities that are threatening or degrading the Gunnison sage grouse habitat are no longer problems for the bird,” Mr. Molvar said.

Even with a threatened listing, however, the decision is expected to chill economic development, including oil and gas exploration and ranching, on 1.4 million acres of designated habitat in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, where an estimated 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse make their home.
Setting a precedent?

Critics of the FWS move fear it sets a precedent for a much larger federal land grab next year.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, a Washington state Republican who is retiring this year, said the Obama administration had tipped its hand on the greater sage grouse listing with Wednesday’s decision. Both cases are on a timeline established in 2011 as a result of a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians to hasten decisions on 252 species listings.

“It foreshadows the intentions of the Obama administration in coming months, with the potential listing of the Greater Sage Grouse in portions of 11 Western states,” Mr. Hastings said in a statement.

Mr. Ashe disagreed, telling The Associated Press that these “are separate species and a much different fact pattern.”

He praised the “extraordinary conservation efforts by our partners in Colorado and Utah” in conserving Gunnison sage grouse habitat, but said that “the best available science indicates that the species still requires the Act’s protection.”

“This is a work in progress, however, and we will continue to join our partners in protecting and restoring the rangelands with the hope that, in the near future, the Gunnison sage grouse will no longer need additional protection,” Mr. Ashe said in a statement.

Republicans argue that environmentalists pushing for the sage grouse listings are more concerned with curtailing oil and gas exploration on public lands than with saving birds.

“The administration is yet again capitulating to special interest groups,” said the joint statement from Mr. Bishop and Mr. Chaffetz.

“This is yet another case of the federal government thinking it is smarter and more capable than the states and communities, a notion I flatly reject,” Mr. Bishop said.

On the Democrat side, Mr. Bennet called the decision “terribly disappointing,” while Mr. Udall said the move “threatens to unravel much of the grass-roots and science-based progress Colorado has made preserving the Gunnison sage grouse.”

While top Colorado Democrats opposed the listing, it’s likely they would have suffered the political consequences had the agency issued its decision before the Nov. 4 vote. The agency was originally scheduled to rule in March but received two extensions, pushing the deadline until a few days after the election.

Even without a sage grouse listing, Mr. Udall wound up losing his Senate re-election battle to Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, but Mr. Hickenlooper eked out a narrow victory over Republican Bob Beauprez.

Mr. Hickenlooper has promoted the success of local programs aimed at boosting the sage grouse’s numbers, even hosting Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for a January tour of the Bord Gulch Ranch in Moffat County. About 75 percent of the county is expected to fall under the Fish and Wildlife Service’s order.

“This sends a discouraging message to communities willing to take significant actions to protect species and complicates our good faith efforts to work with local stakeholders on locally driven approaches,” the governor said.

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