Recovery planning for the Gunnison sage-grouse

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a draft recovery plan for the Gunnison sage-grouse in Colorado and Utah.  The Center for Biodiversity doesn’t like it, but more to the point, they like less how the BLM is managing Gunnison sage-grouse.  More to the point because recovery plans are not mandatory, while federal land management plans can be – and plan components must be mandatory to be considered “regulatory” enough to carry much weight in ESA listing and delisting decisions.  As the FWS said, “Establishing durable regulatory mechanisms that are binding and enforceable, such as revised land use planning amendments, will be important for recovery.”


The recovery plan comes on the heels of BLM decisions not to designate any Areas of Critical Environmental Concern for Gunnison sage-grouse in the Tres Rios and Uncompahgre Resource management plans, and to adopt inadequate safeguards for the birds’ habitat in recent land-use plans. For example, although the draft recovery plan calls on federal land-management agencies to improve their resource management plans and protect suitable habitat within four miles of breeding sites, the BLM’s August 2019 proposed resource plan for its Uncompahgre Field Office protects only habitats within 0.6 miles of breeding sites. The BLM admits this would “fall short of minimum protection standards to maintain sage-grouse viability.”

“Bringing the Gunnison sage-grouse back from the brink requires decisive and concerted action, but instead we have two federal agencies working against each other,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is urging federal land managers to improve protections for public-land habitat, but the BLM is moving in the opposite direction. This is a recipe for extinction for this beautiful bird. We’ll do everything possible to keep that from happening.”

The timing is also such that BLM plans were released prior to the draft recovery plan.  That means that the BLM should start taking another look at how their plans address this species and take into account the new information and recommended measures.  The same is true for the 10% of sage-grouse habitat that occurs on national forest lands. BLM is not subject to NFMA, so its obligation to maintain species viability to avoid listing under ESA is not as clear as for the Forest Service.  Forest Service plans must “contribute to recovery” of listed species, so failure to address elements of this recovery plan when it is final should raise serious questions.

In addition to specific conservation measures like the four-mile buffers for breeding leks, the draft recovery plan provides some specific desired conditions that could be included in land management plans:

2. Regulatory mechanisms or other conservation plans or programs, such as land-use management plans, reduce and ameliorate threats associated with habitat loss and degradation in all populations, such that:

A. Habitat in Dove Creek is improved and maintained at a quantity calculated to support a HMC of 30, although this criterion is not measured by achieving the target HMC.

B. Habitat in CSCSM is maintained at a quantity calculated to support a HMC of 7, although this criterion is not measured by achieving the target HMC.

C. Habitat is improved and maintained in Gunnison Basin, San Miguel, Piñon Mesa, Crawford, and Monticello at a quantity calculated to support the target HMCs as listed in Table 1.

At a minimum, the land management agencies will need to explain how these plans contribute to meeting their requirements under ESA to manage their programs to promote recovery of listed species, which should include how they are implementing the final recovery plan.

2 thoughts on “Recovery planning for the Gunnison sage-grouse”

  1. Thanks for this post Jon.
    Fortunately, the Center once again, maintains its mission and purpose, undeterred.

    Unfortunately, the history of sage grouse collapse across its ranges of the American West and subspecies reads like a poster child of charitable grant-driven Gang Green victims.

    1) In particular, The Nature Conservancy (sic), which accepted an especially-generous Mobil oil corporation gift for Attwater prairie chicken lek conservation purposes, then TNC declared the leks were safe and had their gift drilled for “conservation” purposes anyway — the catch to the CON, of course being TNC subsequently got caught directionally-drilling into an adjacent lease and ended up settling out of court for $even figure$ (two honest mistakes in a row? what luck!)

    2) and Audubon itself, which championed collaboration with ranchers and oil industry tycoons over all that silly regulatory mess of an ESA listing? According to the NAS rationale: Funding problems for FWS and besides, “Some 672 species are currently listed as threatened or endangered in the United States, and dozens more share the sage-grouse’s “warranted but precluded” status.” “There’s big money at stake. Wyoming alone could lose an estimated $8 billion in revenue from energy development if the bird is listed.” (et tu Brutus?! )

    3) (Unfortunately, there are other examples of ESA sell-outs… and since you have experience with Defenders of Wildlife, and I certainly do as former president of the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, (now Alaska Rainforest Defenders, in attempting to get support for the listing of Canis lupus ligoni (Alexander Archipelago wolf).

    This keep in mind, was when its population was utterly decimated by decades of “intensive management” of both old growth habitat, the wolf prey species, Sitka blacktailed deer, and the old growth dependent keystone species itself — ligoni.

    We were gobsmacked that DoW, sporting a howling wolf for its logo which no doubt generated hundred$ of thousand$ over the decades in donations, went mute despite our several urgent pleas for help, first to Karla Dutton, DoW Alaska Program Director, whom promised a response from Ms. Jamie Rappaport Clark but which never arrived. (This is what I call, “internal monkey-wrenching”)
    I couldn’t help but notice the DoW staff was dominated by USFWS alumni, then I noticed Ms Rappaport’s salary (@ $435,925 ) as CEO and figured she had a lot to consider losing if she elevated conscience, science, conservation and ethics over her job security.(whew!)

    Finally, while former Gov.Hickenlooper (a “D” at that) sold his soul, countless endangered leks, and the now toxified groundwaters of Colorado to fracking interests in the name of “national energy security” (and campaign debt quid pro quos), there of course remain the human dimensions of cancer-causing fracking emissions which are virtually never referenced on Smokey Wire discussions of Colorado fracking on public lands.

    • David, I don’t understand why you frame what seem to me to be legitimate disagreements about tactics, goals, etc. as “ethical” and as if “science” is on one side of conservation and not another.

      Most of the issues you mentioned I don’t follow. I actually don’t believe that money motivates Hick, he was a geologist and has his own knowledge base of people and processes and didn’t turn on them for Big Green political expediency in the D party. He would have been more successful at D fundraising if he had done so.

      But if you want to talk about the discussions of environmental impacts of fracking, it is certainly an interesting case of science and policy, and I have been following it in some detail.

      Since our R Senator Cory Gardner supports wind and solar, has he also “sold his soul”? Or are only some industries evil and others good?


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