Gunnison bird gets U.S. protection
November 12, 2014
DENVER — Federal officials granted protection to the Gunnison sage grouse Wednesday, a move that could bring restrictions on oil and gas drilling and other activity to preserve the bird's habitat in parts of Colorado and Utah.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper immediately renewed the state's threat to sue to block the measures. He said the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignores 20 years of work by state and local officials to protect the bird.
Utah officials also were critical. Some environmental groups praised the decision, while others said it did not go far enough.
Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said the bird qualifies as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, meaning it's likely to be pushed to the brink of extinction soon.
Threatened status is less serious than endangered, which means a species is on the verge of extinction now and requires tighter restrictions.
An estimated 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse remain in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. About 2,200 square miles will be designated as critical habitat.
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The extent of restrictions on drilling and other activities was not immediately known. Ashe said the area does not appear to have significant potential for energy.
Drilling could continue despite the restrictions, he said.
"I think the industry knows how to develop with minimal surface disturbance," Ashe said. But he said the agency will closely examine any activity that could affect the bird.
Energy companies could be required to consolidate drilling on fewer sites and use directional drilling to avoid disturbing habitat, he said.
A spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.
Threatened status gives federal officials flexibility in approving new or expanded agricultural operations, Ashe said. Landowners who already have agreements with the federal government to protect the Gunnison grouse won't see any change, he said.
The Gunnison grouse is related to the greater sage grouse, which is at the center of a separate and larger debate over federal protection across 11 Western states. The Fish and Wildlife Service has a September court-ordered deadline to rule on the greater sage grouse, whose habitat includes a piece of western Garfield County.
Ashe cautioned against viewing Wednesday's decision as a clue to the next ruling.
"These are separate species and a much different fact pattern," he said.
Hickenlooper and local officials in Colorado sought to delay the Gunnison grouse decision, saying voluntary steps could help save the bird.
Ashe praised the work state and local officials have done, saying it helped avoid the more stringent "endangered" status.
WildEarth Guardians said threatened status was inadequate and the bird should have been granted more stringent endangered status.
"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 Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the group.