US FWS proposes listing Gunnison sage grouse as endangered

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species. The bird’s habitat in western Colorado and eastern Utah is similar to that of the greater sage grouse, and includes areas with high oil and gas potential, FWS said in its Jan. 11 Federal Register notice.

Comments on the proposal will be accepted until Mar. 12, it indicated.

FWS said the Gunnison sage grouse’s seven populations occupy 1,511 sq miles in the two states, with the largest population in Colorado’s Gunnison County. It said the San Miguel basin is the only population area with moderate oil and gas production, with only 13% of occupied habitat currently leased.

The US Bureau of Land Management’s Uncompahgre Field Office in Montrose is deferring additional leasing in that basin and in the species’ range more generally, the notice said.

“While the San Miguel, Monticello-Dove Creek, and Crawford populations have high or medium potential for future development, the potential for future development is low throughout the remaining population areas, which represent the majority of the range of the species,” it said.

FWS said it doesn’t consider oil and gas development as big a threat to the bird as agricultural and residential activity. “However, given the already small and fragmented nature of the populations where oil and gas leases are most likely to occur, additional development within occupied habitat would negatively impact those populations by causing additional actual and functional habitat loss and fragmentation,” it said.

The Gunnison sage grouse’s range isn’t coincident with a lot of current energy development, although there is some exploration potential, a Denver attorney specializing in lands, water, and wildlife law said on Jan. 11. “It’s on the edge of the greater sage grouse habitat, and there are questions about whether they should be managed separately or together,” said Kent Holsinger, principal at Holsinger Law LLC.

The proposal is part of a federal trend to take wide-ranging species, put a place name in front of them, and petition to list them, he told OGJ. “Agricultural and residential activity are more prominent threats here, but the reality is that any activity with a federal nexus would require consultation, which would make life more complicated for oil and gas producers,” Holsinger said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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