National Access Issues

GOP bill would delay grouse listing for 10 years

A Colorado House Republican today will introduce a bill to delay the Interior Department's listing decisions for two Western sage grouse species by a decade and give states the lead in conserving the birds' habitat.

The bill by Rep. Cory Gardner is the latest effort by Western Republicans to forestall Endangered Species Act protections for the greater sage grouse and Gunnison sage grouse, two charismatic, ground-dwelling birds that roam millions of acres of Western rangelands.

One environmentalist said the bill would increase both birds' risk of extinction and would waste taxpayer money.

Under court orders, the Fish and Wildlife Service by September 2015 must decide whether to list the greater sage grouse, which lives in 11 Western states, and by this fall must decide whether to finalize its proposal to list the Gunnison grouse in Colorado and southeast Utah.

The Gardner bill, crafted in coordination with the Utah-based Western Grouse Coalition, would give states two years to submit a 10-year sage grouse conservation plan.

Within a month of receiving the plan, Fish and Wildlife would be required to halt for a decade any listing decisions or critical habitat designations. In addition, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service would have to halt any land-use planning efforts to promote sage grouse habitat and ensure that their management actions comply with the state conservation plans.

The Interior secretary would be given four months to decide whether the state conservation plans would negate the need for ESA protections and "conserve the habitat essential to conserve the sage grouse species within the state." The secretary could approve, endorse or make comments on the plans, though rejection does not appear to be an option.

Gardner, who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) this November, could not be reached this morning for comment. Ranchers and oil and gas developers in the Centennial State are fearful that a listing of either grouse would hamper land access for cattle and drill rigs.

FWS and conservationists warn that both birds' sagebrush steppe habitat is threatened by oil and gas development, habitat fragmentation, wildfire and invasive species, among other threats.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, whose legal settlement with the Obama administration in 2011 compelled both grouse listing decisions, said both species have been waiting more than a decade for protections, and the Gunnison grouse in particular is "on the brink of extinction."

"The Fish and Wildlife Service is already bending over backwards to work with states on conservation plans," he said in an email. "This bill and so many others put forward by extreme anti-environment Republicans is a waste of tax payer dollars."

Fish and Wildlife is seeking a special rule under ESA for the Gunnison grouse that would allow those who participate in approved conservation plans to be exempt from the law's most stringent restrictions.

The agency is expected to pursue the same kind of so-called 4(d) rule for the greater sage grouse.

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