Once plentiful in the West, the greater sage grouse is dying out, and Moffat County is one of its last strongholds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering adding the bird to its endangered species list, but the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Moffat County officials hope the federal agency doesn't go to such extremes, because of the potential impact on landowners.
There are about 8,000 sage grouse in the county, according to an estimate by Tomy Apa, a sage grouse research biologist with the state wildlife division in Grand Junction. He calls that a "fair number of birds."
But in other parts of the state, sage grouse populations have dwindled or disappeared entirely. In response, environmental groups have filed petitions with the Fish and Wildlife Service to have the sage grouse listed as an endangered species.
In early January, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the "eastern" sage grouse -- the species that lives in Northwest Colorado -- as endangered because the federal agency did not consider these grouse to be a subspecies or distinct population segment of sage grouse.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service continued to evaluate other petitions to list the sage grouse as endangered. By law, Fish and Wildlife is required to decide if the petition is worth further investigation within 90 days of filing. A decision should be reached by mid-March.
If the finding is positive, the Fish and Wildlife Service will begin a nine-month review to determine if the sage grouse should be listed.
During a meeting on Jan. 20, the Moffat County Board of Commissioners voted to send a letter to Fish and Wildlife encouraging them to wait to make a decision until they'd collected more information. The letter may be a futile gesture because the Fish and Wildlife research timeframes are mandated by law. But the letter reflects how many Moffat County landowners feel about endangered species.
"Endangered species listings have a significant impact on a rural community that is so widespread," Apa said. "The (state) division doesn't want to see the species listed."
If the sage grouse were listed, anyone who wanted to put up a fence, dig a well, install a pipeline, or open a mine would have to consult the Fish and Wildlife Service before beginning work.
The Bureau of Land Management would prefer to develop a local sage grouse management plan that would be incorporated into a state and national plan the state Division of Wildlife is developing, said Tim Novotny, a wildlife biologist with the BLM.
"Our goal is to prevent it from needing to be listed," Novotny said. "But we realize that when a species does get to that point, (listing) is a good thing."
A BLM plan would address local factors that have influenced the sage grouse population. The plan would reduce predation and improve habitat. Novotny said the BLM hopes to finalize the plan by early summer.
The BLM and DOW conservation plans would encourage people to volunteer to help the sage grouse, as opposed to endangered species laws, which dictate procedures for maintaining habitat. Apa likens it to providing land users a carrot rather than a hammer.
Greater sage grouse populations have been decimated by the encroachment of humans and the conversion of sage brush to agriculture fields. With the destruction of this habitat, sage grouse have lost their nesting ground.
Like many humans, sage grouse have also been plagued by wildfires. The fires destroy the native grass and forb understory on which the sage grouse thrive. Following the fire, cheat grass grows in place of the forbs, robbing the sage grouse of food.
As the sage grouse population shrinks, habitat loss and predation become even greater issues, Apa said.
Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org