Conservation Colorado: Sage grouse woes and wonders
As the last rays of sunlight disappeared under the ridge and the cold began sweeping across the basin, I slowly came to grips with the fact that another hunting season was being put to rest, and I was going to be trudging home without filling the freezer.
While I’ve hunted long enough to know that some years your luck is non-existent and have found the reward of memories of the field more sustaining than whatever meat I strap to my pack, I couldn’t help but feel disappointment. The disappointment wasn’t for the shots I passed over on younger bucks, it was reserved for the places I didn’t hunt, the areas I didn’t work hard enough to get into.
While I obviously go out in the field with the goal with filling my tag, my real aspiration is to be able to experience places and landscapes that will live in my memories far longer than the meat in my freezer. However, the inherent reality is that I likely won’t ever stop wondering what was over the next ridgeline or what that basin over yonder holds at sunset, and that’s why I’ll always keep coming back.
Unfortunately, when I went back to work this week, I got another dose of disappointment when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to list the Gunnison sage grouse as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
I wasn’t disappointed because I don’t think the bird deserves protection, if anything, I think it deserves more protections. Gunnison sage grouse, a smaller cousin to our local greater sage grouse, has seen its populations dwindle to roughly 5,000 birds across a portion of southwest Colorado and an even small portion of southeast Utah. The vast majority of birds can be found in the Gunnison Basin, where local stakeholders like the county and landowners have spent the past two decades developing and implementing ambitious conservation programs to save the species.
My disappointment was reserved for the fact that I thought we could do something far better for the bird than a threatened listing. During the past couple months some of my colleagues and myself had been working with a coalition of those local, state and federal stakeholders to craft a plan that would take the place of federal action.
The fact of the matter is that the ESA carries a tremendous amount of baggage with westerners. I would argue that much of that baggage is rooted in hypotheticals and falsehoods, but I don’t argue that it exists. It’s also the fact that there are a number of limitations for what the ESA actually can do to conserve species like Gunnison sage grouse. The reality is that the ESA is a tool, and it needs people willing to use it the right way for it to work.
The people of Gunnison County realized this long ago and embarked upon an ambitious plan to save the species and avoid a listing. They worked with the state to create local stakeholder groups that understood the species and the surrounding science to develop conservation tools that not only would implement tangible measures on the ground, but would keep folks invested, engaged and committed to conserving the species. That work isn’t lost with a listing as it will be a foundation for recovery and hopefully a “delisting” soon.
However, there was and is still much to be done with the smaller, “satellite” Gunnison sage grouse populations found outside the Gunnison Basin. These populations are only few hundred birds here and there that face the threat of extirpation from a variety of threats. However, because of either miscommunication or misconception, conservation efforts hadn’t been focused on those areas until fairly recently.
Which brings up “our” bird, the greater sage grouse. Comparing the plight of the Gunnison sage grouse with the situation the greater sage grouse is like comparing a tabby house cat with a Siberian tiger. Similarities exist on the surface, but they are different scales. The greater sage grouse range across 11 states and two Canadian provinces. Heck, there’s more greater sage grouse habitat in Moffat County alone than the entire range of Gunnison sage grouse. So, while greater sage grouse populations have plummeted during the past half century, there are still hundreds of thousands of birds left. Bottom line, we have far more opportunity to conserve the species and keep it from being listed under the ESA than we did with Gunnison sage grouse. But only if we work together.
I’ll spend the next year wondering “what if” when it comes to this past hunting season. What if I had just hiked those extra three miles to get to that ridgeline? What if I was in that draw at dawn? I hope we never have to wonder “what if” when it comes to working together to protect greater sage grouse.
Luke Schafer is the West Slope advocacy director for Conservation Colorado. His office is based in Craig.