FAQs: Gunnison Sage-grouse Listing and Critical Habitat Proposals

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

1. What is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination regarding the status of the Gunnison sage-grouse?

After evaluating all the available scientific and commercial information regarding the Gunnison sage-grouse, including an analysis of the threats to the species and its sagebrush habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has determined that protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is warranted and the Gunnison sage-grouse will be proposed for listing as endangered. If the Service finalizes the rule as proposed, it would extend the ESA’s protections to this species.

2. Why did the Service make this decision?

The Service’s decision is based on an analysis of the threats contributing to the species’ decline. The principle threat to Gunnison sage-grouse is habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation due primarily to residential, exurban, and commercial development and associated infrastructure such as roads and power lines. These types of development and their impact on sage-grouse habitat are expected to increase as human populations continue growing in size. The fragmented nature of the remaining habitat amplifies the negative effects that other factors are having on the current populations.

Other threats include improper grazing management; predation (often facilitated by human development or disturbance); drought; 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 Gunnison sage-grouse but, collectively, have the potential to threaten the species, include:  fences, invasive plants, fire, climate change, renewable and fossil fuel energy development, piñon-juniper encroachment, reservoir creation, disease, drought, and recreation. The Service believes that because of these threats, the Gunnison sage-grouse and its habitat should be protected under the ESA.

3. What is a proposed species?

Proposed species are plants and animals for which the Service has sufficient information on their biological status and threats to propose them for listing as endangered or threatened under the ESA, but for which a final listing regulation has not yet been determined. Under the ESA, federal agencies must confer with the Service if federal projects may affect proposed species or proposed critical habitat. The Service also encourages voluntary cooperative conservation efforts for these species.

4. What is the population and range of Gunnison sage-grouse and how does this compare to historical levels?

Approximately 5,000 breeding birds remain in sagebrush and adjacent meadow and riparian (streamside) habitats in and around the Gunnison Basin in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The current range of the Gunnison sage-grouse is only seven percent of its former historical range, which included in the southwestern portion of Colorado, southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, and northwestern New Mexico.

5. What is being done to conserve Gunnison sage-grouse?

The Service acknowledges its state, federal and local working group partners as well as private landowners for their ongoing and proposed conservation efforts across the range of the Gunnison sage-grouse. Gunnison sage-grouse local working groups have developed conservation plans for six of the seven Gunnison sage-grouse populations. Conservation tools, including conservation agreements and easements, have been developed and are being implemented on public, private and state lands across portions of the species’ range. In addition, the Service is coordinating with federal agencies to design federal projects for ESA compliance and to benefit Gunnison sage-grouse. Research by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), the U.S. Geological Survey, and other academia continues to provide critical biological information for the species. Numerous habitat improvement projects have occurred and are being proposed in Gunnison sage-grouse habitats. The Service will continue working with agencies and landowners to facilitate these and future efforts to advance the conservation and long-term recovery of the species. The combined efforts of all private, county, state and federal partners are essential to achieve long-term conservation and recovery of Gunnison sage-grouse.

6. If the Gunnison sage-grouse is listed in the future, what activities could be impacted?

Any activity that has the potential to affect Gunnison sage-grouse may be impacted if the species is listed. For example, depending on the location and the extent and scale of the activity, residential development, road development and access, recreational activities, grazing, energy development, fence line and/or power line construction, vegetation control/management, and land-use conversions may be impacted.

7. What can landowners do to conserve proposed species?

Landowners and agencies can contact the Service for technical assistance in avoiding or minimizing impacts on Gunnison sage-grouse. The Service also works with private landowners, tribes, and other federal and state agencies to forge voluntary conservation agreements that benefit proposed and other species-at-risk, and provide technical assistance on designing and implementing conservation actions to address threats to these species. These programs are designed to benefit the species as well as landowners, agencies, and land use interests, particularly when such agreements are completed prior to listing of a species.

The Service anticipates continued interest in the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) program for Gunnison sage-grouse. The Service will continue working with CPW and landowners for coverage under the CCAA. Enrollment in the CCAA will remain open until September 30, 2013, when a decision on whether to list the species will be made. However, in order to provide sufficient time for processing of applications and enrollment, the Service encourages landowners to submit their requests as early as possible. For more information on the CCAA program, or to apply, see: http://wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/SpeciesOfConcern/Birds/Pages/ccaa.aspx

The Service also provides financial and technical assistance to landowners seeking to conserve proposed species on their private land through its Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Additional financial assistance is available through various Service grants and agreements, as well as through Farm Bill and Department of Defense programs. For more information on these tools, see http://www.fws.gov/endangered/landowners/landowner-tools.html.

8. What is the Service’s determination regarding the critical habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse?

The Service has determined that, following the proposal to list the Gunnison sage-grouse as endangered under the ESA, designation of critical habitat for the species, which contains the physical and biological features essential to the conservation and recovery of the species, is necessary. In total, 1,704,227 acres are being proposed for designation as critical habitat.

9. What is critical habitat?

Critical habitat is a term in the ESA that identifies geographic areas essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species. The ESA defines “conservation” as the actions leading towards the eventual recovery of a species to the point where it is no longer threatened or endangered.

A critical habitat designation requires federal agencies to consult with the Service on any of their actions that may affect critical habitat in designated areas. The Service can then recommend ways to minimize any adverse effects. It imposes no requirements on state or private actions on state or private lands where no federal funding, permits or approvals are required.

10. Does a critical habitat designation mean an area is considered a wildlife refuge or sanctuary?

The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve or other conservation area. It does not allow government or public access to private lands.

11. Where is critical habitat being proposed for the Gunnison sage-grouse?

The Service is proposing to designate seven units of critical habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse corresponding with the seven remaining sage-grouse populations. These are: Monticello-Dove Creek, Piñon Mesa, San Miguel Basin, Cerro Summit-Cimarron-Sims Mesa, Crawford, Gunnison Basin, and Poncha Pass. They are in Chaffee, Delta, Dolores, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray, Saguache, and San Miguel Counties in Colorado, and in Grand and San Juan Counties in Utah.

12. How was critical habitat determined for the Gunnison sage-grouse?

The Service used the best available science and reviewed all available information pertaining to the habitat requirements of the sage-grouse. Identification of lands were based on those that contain features essential to the conservation of Gunnison sage-grouse using polygons delineated and defined by the 2005 Gunnison Sage-Grouse Rangewide Conservation Plan (RCP) Habitat Mapping project. Polygons (considered as either ‘occupied’, ‘potential’ or ‘vacant or unknown’ habitat) were derived from a combination of telemetry locations, sightings of sage-grouse or sage-grouse sign, local biological expertise, GIS analysis, or other data sources.

13. Will the Gunnison sage-grouse only be protected in places where critical habitat is designated?

No. All other protections afforded by the ESA apply both on and off designated critical habitat. Listed species, both inside and outside critical habitat, are protected from 'take,' which includes harming (e.g., shooting, killing, trapping, collecting) and harassing individual animals. However, incidental taking that may result from, but is not the purpose of, otherwise legal activities may be allowed with a permit available from the Service.

14. Does everything within the critical habitat boundary get treated as critical habitat?

No. The Service cannot map critical habitat in sufficient detail to exclude all developed areas and other lands unlikely to contain “primary constituent elements” essential for sage-grouse conservation. Within the revised critical habitat boundaries, only lands containing some or all of the primary constituent elements are designated as critical habitat. Existing man-made features and structures within critical habitat, such as buildings; roads; residential landscaping; residential, commercial, and industrial developments; and other features, do not contain some or all of the primary constituent elements. Therefore, these areas will not be considered critical habitat and will be specifically excluded from critical habitat by definition.

15. How can comments be submitted on both the listing and/or critical habitat proposals?

Comments on each proposed rule, both of which will publish concurrently in the Federal Register on January 11, 2013, must be received within 60 days, on or before March 12, 2013. See the Addresses section of each proposed rule for how to submit comments.

Any final action resulting from the proposed rules will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available, and be as accurate and as effective as possible. To ensure that it has the best information on which to base its decisions, the Service is requesting comments or information from the public, other concerned government agencies, Native American tribes, the scientific community, industry or any other interested parties.

In addition to submitting comments, the public is encouraged to attend a series of informal meetings to be held in January and February 2013. In coordination with Gunnison sage-grouse Local Working Groups, meetings will likely occur in Gunnison, Colorado; Montrose or Delta, Colorado; and Cortez, Colorado or Monticello, Utah and will be advertised at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/.

16. Where can more information be found?

For more information about the Gunnison sage-grouse and the listing and critical habitat proposals, visit the Service’s web site at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/gunnisonsagegrouse/.