Gunnison sage grouse listed as threatened

 Posted by on November 12, 2014
Nov 122014

New: Transcript of teleconference (added Wed., Nov. 13, 12:30 pm)

See tweets at

Press release announcing listing of GSG as threatened.

It's official: The Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened. The service is about to make the announcement on a teleconference, but FWS Director Dan Ashe decided to spill the beans early in a meeting at The Denver Post, whose editorial board does not believe the species should be listed.

Environmental groups were quick to criticize the decision. See below.

Ashe remarks (from teleconference):

"what has been called the Sagebrush Sea...has been in decline."

"we did that [proposed it as endangered] primarily due to habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation."

conservation efforts have reduced threats to the bird (leading to threatened, not endangered, listing)

If anything happens to core population, satellite populations would be essential to help species rebound.

Have been in contact with governor's office to determine what protections are in place now (in preparation for 4(d) rule)

Will be working with NRCS and Farm Services Administration to develop Biological Opinion.

Re: Gunnison sage grouse decision as "predicate" for greater sage-grouse decision:

"These are separate species and a much different fact pattern. The F&WS makes decisions on the facts and the science as we see it in each case. We respond to information that's presented to us."

Greater sage-grouse has a wider range, larger population, he says

Conference opinion: A process has been underway for a month. That conference opinion is with NRCS, in a process of review. We expect to have that completed by time is rule is effective.

Thabault: Basic things that will be covered with NRCS: Implementtion of pro-active measures; Farm Bill programs: Water developments, range management plans.

Earlier version of this story:

The Fish and Wildlife Service will announce its decision whether to list the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act at 11 a.m. Mountain Time -- 1 p.m. Eastern Time.

That's when the service will hold a teleconference to announce its final judgment, which the state of Colorado tried to delay at the last minute.

Gunnison sage-grouse displaying (Credit: Nop Paothong)

That effort was unsuccessful, however. The court-mandated deadline for a final listing decision is today, and FWS will meet it, spokesmen told ESWR.

The service proposed listing the bird as endangered in January 2013. At the time, FWS said it had determined that

the principal threat to Gunnison sage-grouse is habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation due to residential, exurban, and commercial development and associated infrastructure such as roads and power lines. The human population is increasing throughout much of the range of Gunnison sage-grouse, and data indicate this trend will continue. With this growth, we expect an increase in human development, further contributing to loss and fragmentation of Gunnison sage-grouse habitats. Other threats to the species include improper grazing management; predation (often facilitated by human development or disturbance); genetic risks in the declining, smaller populations; and inadequate local, State, and Federal regulatory mechanisms (e.g., laws, regulations, zoning) to conserve the species. Other factors that may not individually threaten the continued existence of Gunnison sage- grouse but, collectively, have the potential to threaten the species, include invasive plants, fire, and climate change, and the interaction of these three factors; fences; renewable and non-renewable energy development; piñon-juniper encroachment; water development; disease;, drought; and recreation.

Erik Molvar, director of WildEarth Guardians' Sagebrush Sea Campaign, said he would be surprised if the species were not listed.

Federal agencies have been slow to include Gunnison sage grouse habitat protections in their management plans in the bird's range in Southwest Colorado and Eastern Utah, he said this morning. "There's not much protection from federally permitted activities."

Locally, some counties with sage grouse "have been fairly active," he said. Others have not done anything. But "no county has decisively acted to protect Gunnison sage grouse on private land," he said.

Even Gunnison County, which supports some 80 percent of the remaining sage-grouse (which number about 5,000 in total), "has never denied a permit to build or subdivide" in sage grouse habitat, Molvar said.


PRESS RELEASE 11/12/2014


Clait Braun, Sage Grouse Scientist, (520) 529-4614
Erik Molvar, WildEarth Guardians, (307) 399-7910
Todd Tucci, Advocates for the West, (208) 724-2142
Shelley Silbert, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, (970) 385-9577

Sage Grouse Scientist, Conservationists Challenge Feds'
Failure to Adequately Protect the Gunnison Sage Grouse

Critically imperiled bird needs stronger safeguards to survive and recover

DENVER, CO – A coalition including leading sage grouse expert Dr. Clait Braun and several western conservation organizations announced today a challenge to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to adequately protect the imperiled Gunnison sage grouse. Fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse remain, yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to protect the imperiled bird as an “endangered” species, choosing instead a less protective status as “threatened.”

"I have been researching and monitoring Gunnison sage grouse populations and habitat for almost 40 years,” said Dr. Clait Braun, a retired sage grouse expert with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “Today, Gunnison sage grouse stand at the precipice of extinction due to the impacts of grazing, oil and gas development, residential subdivisions, and other factors; and existing conservation plans and strategies are inadequate to stop this decline. Only science-based approaches to conservation will save Gunnison sage grouse, and it past time to let science dictate appropriate conservation measures.”

“The Endangered Species Act provides the safety net for saving our most endangered wildlife from extinction when other efforts are failing,” added Todd Tucci of Advocates for the West. “But it only works if the most imperiled species, like the Gunnison sage grouse, get real protections on the ground, including adequate critical habitat.”

In January 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the bird as ‘endangered’ citing ongoing threats and the inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms to prevent the disappearance of the birds in each of the seven remaining populations. Gunnison sage grouse are absent from 90 percent of their historic range. As of January 2013, fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse remain in just seven isolated populations, six of which are below minimum viable population numbers, meaning those populations are facing serious, short term risk of extinction.

“Imperiled by irresponsible grazing, oil and gas drilling, residential development, roads, powerlines and the cumulative impacts of these threats, the fewer than 5,000 remaining Gunnison sage grouse need the strongest possible protections to ensure they survive and recover,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The science is clear, this spectacular dancing bird is endangered and should be afforded the highest level of protection.”

A recent analysis by WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild found that state, federal, and local protections currently in place cannot successfully address the multiple threats to the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat. Livestock grazing, rural subdivision development, habitat fragmentation by infrastructure such as roads and powerlines, and oil and gas development continue to threaten the survival of the bird. Voluntary conservation efforts are not enforceable and have not led to recovery for the Gunnison sage grouse.

“We can’t gamble on the survival of this bird with the voluntary or scientifically inadequate protections that could be allowed under a ‘threatened species’ designation,” said Molvar. “This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Our generation cannot make the same mistakes of doing too little, too late to prevent the extinction of this iconic bird.”

“As a society, we love wide open landscapes, water, and wildlife. The decline of the Gunnison sage grouse is a symptom of our failure as a society to maintain the health of the Four Corners region,” said Shelley Silbert, Executive Director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “By protecting the sage grouse, we can restore the sagebrush ecosystem, benefitting many other species of wildlife and respecting the importance the connection to the land holds for our families and communities.”

Advocates for the West will represent Dr. Braun, WildEarth Guardians, Wild Utah Project, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness in the expected legal action.

Sep 112012

Eight other groups have also said they will sue over the delisting of the gray wolf in Wyoming.

WildEarth Guardians,  Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Conservation Congress, Friends of Animals, Friends of the Clearwater, National Wolfwatcher Coalition and Western Watersheds Project sent a Notice of Intent to Sue on Sept 10.

They joined the more nationally known groups Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club, who also have said they will file a lawsuit over the delisting.

Press release

Sep 102012

The same day the final rule delisting wolves in Wyoming appeared in the Federal Register, four environmental groups said they will sue the Fish and Wildlife Service over the decision, annonced last week.

Earthjustice, representing Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club, sent a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and FWS Director Dan Ashe.

"Wyoming’s wolf management policies open the door to unlimited wolf killing throughout most of the state and provide inadequate protection for wolves even where killing is regulated," a news release issued today says.


NOITS posted on ESWR's page

Delisting rule in FR

Earthjustice page with wolf links

May 092012

Leapin' lizards, batman: The dunes sagebrush variety of this particular reptile is getting a lot of attention.

Make up your minds, already (Photo courtesy FWS)

The Washington Post's Energy and Environment page has coverage of DOI's approval of "a major natural gas project in Utah’s Uinta Basin that could develop more than 3,600 new wells over the next decade, while safeguarding air quality and assuring the protection of critical wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation values. The project will support up to 4,300 jobs during development."

The quote is not from the Post's story, but from DOI's news release. issued yesterday (and reprinted below). In the Post, Steven Mufson writes that "the action doesn’t open any new land for production, because the drilling will take place on leases­ already owned by Anadarko. But the step by Interior assuaged some in Utah, where shortly after taking office President Obama had canceled 77 leases issued by President George W. Bush."

In its Biological Opinion, FWS made a number of conservation recommendations regarding protection of -- or avoidance of jeopardy to -- four endangered Colorado River fishes. Or as they've been known all the years they've been swimming in endangered waters together, the Colorado River Endangered Fishes -- Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail, and humpback chub by, which will be adversely affected by water depletions of up to 757 acre-feet per year.

One apparent difference between the DOI release and the Post story is the estimate of jobs created. DOI says 4,300, the Post quotes Anadarko as claiming creation of "as many as 2,900 jobs, directly and indirectly, during construction."

But here's DOI's full explanation: "The new gas wells proposed under the plan would support an annual average of 1,709 jobs directly and 1,212 jobs indirectly. At peak development, the project would support 4,302 short-term jobs, and support an average of 875 long-term jobs over the production life of the project."

It's all in how you look at it.

Oddly, if you look at the Post's E&E page, you won't find a link to Juliet Eilperin's story from just three days ago on the fight over the lizard's conservation status: FWS is scheduled to decide in June whether to list it as threatened or endangered under the ESA. Mufson's story, done from a political/economic point of view (and posted on the business page), doesn't mention the lizard. Eilperin explores the lizard listing decision's impact on a settlement the service reached with environmental groups to make decisions on hundreds of candidate species, including the lizard.

Here are the story's first three paragraphs:

It wasn’t too hard for the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide the fate of 92 freshwater snails, or 17 dragonflies, or indeed more than 500 species over the past year. But when it comes to the dunes sagebrush lizard, trouble looms.

The small spiny reptile seeks refuge from the hot sun and potential predators in the shinnery oak dunes of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Ranchers have been clearing the oak shrubs, and oil and gas companies are drilling in the dunes. If the lizard is designated as an endangered species, some of those activities could be in jeopardy.

The lizard’s future is among the first in a series of wrenching tests threatening what has been a year-long cease-fire in the fight over endangered-species listings.

The article frames the upcoming deadlines -- reached with Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity in settlements agreed to last year -- in the context of the big election in November.

The storm may start with the dunes sagebrush lizard, first listed as a candidate for federal protection in 1982. Since then its habitat has been reduced by 40 percent. Fish and Wildlife proposed listing the animal, also known as the sand dunes lizard, as endangered in December 2010.

The agency was set to issue a final decision a year later but delayed doing so by six months in the face of fierce congressional resistance. Now it must decide by mid-June what to do about the lizard. Some of its habitat overlaps with the oil-rich Permian Basin, which produces 17 percent of the nation’s annual onshore oil supply.

Permian Basin Petroleum Association President Ben Shepperd, whose group represents 900 oil and gas producers in New Mexico and Texas, estimates that the association has spent between $500,000 and $1 million on consultants who have conducted their own census of the lizard and challenged several aspects of agency’s listing proposal.

“The evidence does not point to a threat to this species,” Shepperd said, adding that his members fear this decision — along with ones on the lesser prairie chicken and spot-tailed earless lizard, also mandated under the settlement agreement — could restrict oil and gas drilling. “We think the impact is in the billions of dollars.”

In all, the settlements apply to more than 800 species, but the deadlines are spaced out over five years.

More lizard and settlement-related links

Snails, mentioned above

Final listing rules from 2011 and from this year

Proposed listings and petition findings for this year (but don't forget the March 21, 2012, reopening of the public comment period and announcement of a public hearing on proposed designation of critical habitat for the Southern Selkirk Mountains Population of Woodland Caribou)

Below (just because we can do it) is a screenshot of proposed actions for this year. Click here to access that page with working links.

Some more recent news:

The proposed regulation is intended to address sea turtle captures in skimmer trawls — fishing equipment, used primarily in bays and estuaries, that are currently exempt from using TEDs. TEDs prevent turtles from drowning in nets, but limited applicability and lax enforcement are thought to have led to thousands of deaths in 2010 and 2011. Currently, skimmer trawls can use tow-time restrictions instead of TEDs. Tow times limit the amount of time shrimpers can keep their trawls in the water, but evidence is mounting that even when these restrictions are followed, skimmers drown turtles. The proposed rule would abandon the tow time restrictions and require skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls and wing nets to use TEDs.

  • May 3: Seahorse moves toward protection (Ctr. for Biological Diversity) Excerpt:  "In response to an April 2011 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced today that the dwarf seahorse may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The one-inch-long seahorse, found in seagrass beds in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and the Caribbean, is threatened with extinction due to decline of seagrass, commercial collection and lingering pollution from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Today’s announcement kicks off a one-year review of its status to determine if federal protection will be granted."

Here's the DOI press release on the Salazar/Abbey/Ashe visit to the Permian Basin:

Salazar, Ashe Emphasize Importance of Texas Energy Development;
Highlight Conservation Agreement for Dunes Sagebrush Lizard

Meet with Industry Officials in Permian Basin

May 8, 2012

MIDLAND, Texas – A day after showcasing a successful partnership in Utah between industry and the conservation community to protect environmentally sensitive areas while developing America’s energy resources, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Dan Ashe today met with oil and gas industry representatives to emphasize the importance of energy development in the Permian Basin and to highlight expanding voluntary conservation efforts for the dunes sagebrush lizard on the part of ranchers and the oil and gas industry.

“Expanding responsible oil and gas development is a top priority for President Obama and his administration as part of an all-of-the-above approach to American energy,” Salazar said during the meeting at a ConocoPhillips site outside Midland. “As we pursue this goal, I commend oil and gas operators in Texas and New Mexico for their voluntary participation in conservation agreements to protect this ancient landscape and I encourage their continued stewardship efforts as we pursue balanced energy development.”

In New Mexico, which contains 73 percent of the lizard’s habitat, 29 oil and gas companies and 39 ranchers are participating in a voluntary project to help conserve the dunes sagebrush lizard, which has been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If science shows that the lizard requires listing under the Endangered Species Act, landowners who have entered into a voluntary conservation agreement will receive assurances that no additional conservation steps above and beyond those contained in the agreement will be required. These conservation efforts now encompass more than 95 percent of the habitat area in New Mexico, with no known adverse impacts on energy development.

In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement (‘Texas Plan’) with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts that allows landowners – oil and gas companies and ranchers – to enter into voluntary conservation agreements that help provide certainty for development and protect the shinnery oak dunes that the lizard inhabits and that are characteristic of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Individual shinnery oak plants are known to extend over dozens of acres and can achieve ages of more than 13,000 years. Approximately 70 percent of the habitat area for the dunes sagebrush lizard in Texas, which contains 27 percent of the lizard’s total habitat, has already been enrolled in the voluntary conservation agreements.

The Texas Plan was developed locally in collaboration with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas A&M University, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, other state and county government agencies, local landowners, representatives from the ranching community and oil and gas operators and development companies in the area.

“It is good to see so many members of the oil and gas industry step up to the plate to voluntarily conserve this unique portion of the southern Great Plains,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “The scientists and professionals in the Fish and Wildlife Service will take these early, proactive measures into consideration in any final listing decision.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered in 2010 and is currently reviewing and analyzing public comment on the proposal in anticipation of a final decision in June. Under the law, the agency must make listing decisions based upon the best available science. The Fish and Wildlife Service had extended the timeline for a final decision to six months to allow the maximum time for scientific study and voluntary conservation efforts.

If the dunes sagebrush lizard is listed as endangered or threatened, the Texas Plan would act as a Habitat Conservation Plan for those companies and other landowners who participate, enabling them to continue to develop oil and gas while ensuring the long-term health of lizard populations.


Greater Natural Buttes Project-BiOp.pdf

Jul 012011

The Senate finally voted to confirm Dan Ashe as the next director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ashe's confirmation had been delayed by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who wanted to see action on offshore permitting before releasing a "hold" he had put on Ashe's nomination.

Vitter released his hold June 1 "after receiving word that the department has issued its fifteenth deepwater exploration well permit and has responded to his other previous requests for answers on the permitting process."

DOI Secretary Ken Salazar said he was "excited to work with [Ashe] to foster innovative science-driven conservation programs and policies to benefit our nation’s fish and wildlife and its habitat.”

Here's the full text of the department's press release:

Salazar Applauds Senate Confirmation of Daniel M. Ashe as New Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today praised the U.S. Senate’s confirmation of Daniel M. Ashe as the 16th Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ashe, a career employee of the agency, will assume his duties immediately.

"Dan Ashe has served with distinction and integrity in the Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 15 years. He has worked tirelessly to prepare the Service to meet the resource challenges of the 21st century, and his leadership and vision have never been more necessary," said Salazar. "I’m excited to work with him to foster innovative science-driven conservation programs and policies to benefit our nation’s fish and wildlife and its habitat."

On December 3, President Obama formally nominated Ashe, who has served as the service’s deputy director for policy since 2009, to be the agency’s director. As deputy director, Ashe developed policy and guidance to support and promote program development and fulfill the service’s mission.

"I’m humbled by the trust that the Secretary and the President have placed in me, and most of all, by the responsibility of leading the finest wildlife conservation organization in the world," Ashe said. "As director, I will strive to create an atmosphere where we can bring to bear our collective imagination, our tenacity, and our commitment to public service to address today’s challenges to the future of our nation’s fish and wildlife heritage."

During his tenure with the service, Ashe has helped to craft the strategy that will guide the agency’s efforts to deal with the effects of a changing climate. That plan outlined interagency cooperative efforts across landscapes as the most effective way to help fish and wildlife populations adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions. Ashe also been a leader in the development of the agency’s Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, which are intended to leverage resources and strategically target science to inform conservation decisions and actions.

President Obama awarded Ashe a Presidential Rank Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his outstanding service.

Prior to being named deputy director, Ashe served as the science advisor to the service’s director from 2003-2009, providing leadership on science policy and scientific applications to resource management.

Ashe served as the chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System from 1998 to 2003, directing operation and management of the 150 million-acre system, and the service’s land acquisition program.

From 1995 to 1998, he served as the Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant director for external affairs, where he directed the agency’s programs in legislative, public, and Native American affairs, research coordination, and state grants-in-aid.

Prior to joining the Service, Ashe served as a member of the professional staff of the former Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 until 1995.

Ashe was born and spent his childhood in Atlanta, Georgia, where his father began his 37-year career with the service. Much of Ashe’s childhood was spent on national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries in the Southeast, where he learned to band birds, fish, hunt and enjoy the outdoors.

He earned a graduate degree in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington, where he studied under a fellowship from the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation. He is very active in local civic affairs in Montgomery County, Maryland, where he and his family reside. He is an avid waterfowl hunter, angler and tennis player.