CRAIG, CO. – Blooping sounds, chest-puffing and ruffling of feathers in a sunrise-mating dance mark the latest survival struggles of greater sage grouse, iconic birds at the center of a storm that may put unprecedented limits on people across a Texas-sized area of the West.
The question — as a decades-long standoff intensifies ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline — is who will impose those limits: the federal government or Colorado and 10 other states that favor flexibility.
Either way, this will be the largest land-conservation feat ever attempted.
Once, greater sage grouse numbered in the millions, along with 300-plus other species, on the sagebrush steppe that stretches from Colorado to California.
But grouse have dwindled rapidly since 1985 to an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 — victims of agricultural, housing and industrial development. That decline triggers, under the Endangered Species Act, a federal rescue to avert extinction on the 165 million acres where grouse have survived.
“We need to avoid things that carve up habitat. Sage grouse are sensitive to disturbances and fragmentation,” said Noreen Walsh, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which must decide by the court-ordered deadline whether to list grouse as endangered. “We have to have strong and certain measures to show that those biggest threats are reduced.”
Two days of intense negotiations in Denver last week veered toward an impasse as USFWS chief Dan Ashe and 11 Western governors’ envoys squared off. Western leaders, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, are ramping up a political blitz for feds to let states do the job.
They contend states know best how to protect grouse and other vanishing sagebrush species, which now include other birds and deer. They point to voluntary sagebrush-conservation projects with ranchers involving 360,000 acres of grouse habitat.
“You want to be able to experiment,” and the federal approach “is driven by fear of making a mistake,” said John Swartout, Hickenlooper’s senior adviser, who for three decades has negotiated endangered species standoffs. “If you list the thing, the partnerships go away.”
The oil and gas industry and private landowners, who control 56 percent of the 4.1-million acres of the greater grouse habitat in Colorado, prefer state-led protection, if any. Oil and gas companies hold rights to drill on much of the Colorado habitat.
“The restrictions (some agencies) are putting in through management plans ahead of a listing are worse than under a listing decision,” Western Energy Alliance vice president Kathleen Sgamma said. “It definitely is making it tougher for industry to work and is locking up land in some areas.”
Such is the fear and uncertainty around possible federal action that some northwestern Colorado ranchers are rushing to kill sagebrush using herbicides — trying to avoid anticipated restrictions. A rigid crackdown “is everybody’s fear,” said Craig-area rancher Wes McStay, a longtime leader of voluntary sagebrush conservation, who called the destruction by others counterproductive.
On a recent morning amid the herbaceous scent of sage, 154 grouse strutted around a field on McStay’s land, which contains the largest concentration of the estimated 20,000 grouse in Colorado.
That’s the result of shielding “lek” breeding areas, reducing cattle grazing on sagebrush and rotating crops to help grouse. McStay has invited Colorado State University researchers to work with him. He uses a plow to thin mature sagebrush and spur growth. He recently teamed with state biologists to put tracking collars on two birds.
He’s also talking with the Nature Conservancy about an easement that could pay him to give up development rights.
“What’s a federal listing going to solve? All we really want is good management, and a listing is not going to make that happen,” McStay said.
“I’m kind of an environmentalist at heart. I lean that way. But people here have got to be able to make a living on the land.”
Yet federal authorities are pressing for a tougher state approach: hard regulations that would ensure grouse survival.
“We know things are going in the wrong direction. The sage grouse, the sagebrush system, is in trouble. And it is not just sage grouse,” Fish and Wildlife director Walsh said. “What is also at stake is habitat for the mule deer, pronghorn and elk — very important to sportsmen and actually quite an economic driver for the states.
“The end result of this should be that all of those species are in much better shape.”
The emerging federal plans lay out well-distributed “priority habitat” across the 165 million acres, surrounded by general habitat. Few intrusions would be allowed within a 4-mile radius around leks, and only 3 percent to 5 percent of grouse habitat could be disturbed. New development — roads, wells, power lines, housing — would face strict scrutiny and mandatory requirements to minimize and offset harm.
“When we have voluntary measures that are brand new or don’t yet have a track record, then it is very difficult for us to count those in a listing decision,” Walsh said. “What we’re looking for, relative to oil and gas development as a threat to the greater sage grouse in Colorado, is better siting of those activities to ensure they’re not degrading priority areas for conservation.”
Colorado officials insist they need the power to grant exceptions where appropriate. Economic interests are at stake.
The state’s current rules require companies to consult with state biologists about grouse before drilling but do not require companies to follow recommendations or offset harm.
Five years ago, Obama administration officials took account of Western concerns when Fish and Wildlife scientists determined grouse needed federal protection to prevent extinction. The feds delayed action, saying states should seize the moment and prove, by 2015, that state-led work could reverse the decline of sage grouse across the West.
Now anything less than full endangered protection is likely to bring lawsuits from species advocates against the federal government. Some contend only federal action can save sufficient sagebrush habitat. Colorado negotiators, acknowledging federal needs to withstand court scrutiny, still are resisting.
“This governor’s not particularly interested in doing anything to shut down the oil and gas industry,” assistant director of natural resources Lisa Dale said.