WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to protect the Gunnison sage grouse as “threatened” rather than giving it the more protective “endangered” status under the Endangered Species Act. Despite having considered the species to be fully endangered, the Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded the species’ status to threatened after intense pressure from industry groups and states.
“All of the science points to the Gunnison sage grouse being endangered,” said Amy Atwood, endangered species legal director at the Center. “I’m appalled that the Fish and Wildlife Service has caved to political pressure and only protected this unique bird as a threatened species.”
The Gunnison sage grouse’s current range has declined to a devastatingly low 7 percent of its historic range, with most of the remaining populations in danger of disappearing due to residential development, oil and gas development, grazing and climate change. The Service has acknowledged since 2000 that the species is in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Service reversed course once before. After drafting a proposed rule to list the species as endangered, political appointees from the Bush administration in 2006 directed agency scientists to remove all protections for the imperiled bird. After an investigation concluded that political officials had improperly interfered in the listing process, the Service put the species back in line for protection.
Following a pair of Endangered Species Act settlement agreements reached in 2011 with environmental organizations including the Center, the Service proposed to list the species as endangered in January 2013. But the agency buckled to political pressure again, and in response to an anti-protection campaign by developers, energy corporations and politicians, downgraded the species to threatened in November 2014.
“An endangered listing is absolutely necessary to protect the woefully few Gunnison sage grouse that remain on the planet,” said Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “Anthropomorphic impacts placed this species in peril, and it is now our responsibility as humans to do everything possible to shield this creature from extinction.”
Species listed as “endangered” receive more powerful legal protections, including prohibitions against killing, harassing or destroying their habitat. But with the weaker “threatened” designation, the Service has indicated it has no plans to offer those protections to the Gunnison sage grouse. Endangered species generally receive higher priority for recovery plans and a higher likelihood that particular activities will be modified or avoided if they could drive the species over the brink.
The Gunnison sage grouse’s historic range included parts of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, but the species now occurs only in seven small populations in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, with only about 4,000 breeding individuals remaining. Livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, motorized recreation and urbanization have contributed to the ongoing decline of the bird.
“Full protection is needed in order to save this charismatic bird, and that's why we're taking this to court,” said Atwood. “We certainly appreciate the efforts of counties and others to take action to protect habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse, but there’s no reason these activities could not have continued with the endangered designation the grouse clearly warrants.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 800,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Western Watersheds Project works to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in the West through education, public policy initiatives and legal advocacy.