As you've likely heard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) listed the imperiled Gunnison sage-grouse as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) last week, a move needed to prevent the bird's extinction.
It's about time.
The Service first determined that our Gunnison birds potentially warranted listing nearly 15 years ago! Since then, and despite various conservation plans that have been implemented or proposed, Gunnison sage-grouse have continued to struggle to survive.
Found only in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, there are now fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage-grouse, and their range has been reduced to 10 percent of historic distribution. Oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, roads, energy transmission and residential development have all fragmented and destroyed sagebrush, contributing to the species' decline.
These birds are so imperiled, in fact, that Audubon considers them to be one of the most endangered birds in the country. And, according to John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "the Gunnison sage-grouse is the most biologically endangered bird species in all of continental North America."
But this doesn't mean we give up hope. Many here in Colorado have invested a significant amount time, energy and money in on-the-ground efforts to conserve the species, and these efforts have benefited Gunnison sage-grouse. But when a species is as imperiled as this one, it takes a lot get it back on the path to recovery. While these birds needed federal protection, the ESA will not only help to stave off extinction, but will provide additional financial resources and support for the conservation work that has already been done on behalf of the grouse. In short, listing will give the Gunnison sage-grouse a fighting chance at survival and by saving the sage-grouse, we will also save sage-grouse habitat, thereby benefiting hundreds of other important species like mule deer and antelope.
And a majority of our fellow Coloradans agree. They want to see sage-grouse and their habitat protected -- even if, as is the case here, that means listing them under the ESA. In fact, according to a recently released poll, 75 percent of voters in Colorado support an ESA listing for sage-grouse if state and local plans aren't sufficient to protect the species. And they want their leaders to take action. In fact, the same poll showed that 55 percent of our fellow voters would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supports protecting sage-grouse.
But clearly our state leaders aren't hearing what we Coloradans have to say. Following last week's listing decision, U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Congressman Scott Tipton issued a joint statement condemning the Service's decision to protect the Gunnison sage-grouse. This is a decision that should be guided by science, not politics, and the science clearly points to a need to list the bird to stave off extinction.
The decline of the Gunnison sage-grouse is about more than one bird. It signals the decline of a quintessential western American landscape. We must do what it takes to fight against that decline, to value our culture and to preserve our state's rich natural heritage, before it's too late. That's a goal we can all support.