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January 20, 2015  Lawsuit Filed to Secure "Endangered" Status for Gunnison Sage Grouse

The Denver Post, January 21, 2015

Gunnison sage grouse battle heats up with two lawsuits filed Tuesday
By Bruce Finley

A legal storm over Obama administration efforts to save Gunnison sage grouse intensified Tuesday as environment groups — and Colorado's former chief grouse scientist — demanded stricter protection.

Two lawsuits filed in federal court contend the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it classified Gunnison grouse — which survive on only 7 percent of their original habitat — to be "threatened" rather than "endangered." Federal scientists previously found grouse so imperiled that they need full protection as endangered, which could hasten rescue action.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has known since the 1990s that this bird should be listed as endangered. They took that away because of politics," said plaintiff Clait Braun, a retired state biologist who for 26 years managed Colorado's grouse and grouse research. "This bird's on the crux of being lost forever. We have to have a recovery plan and protected habitat. We're going to lose it if we don't act quickly."

Environment groups, including WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, filed the lawsuits.

Gunnison grouse are flamboyant, chicken-sized ground dwellers, numbering 4,750, forced to the brink of extinction by development.

For years, voluntary efforts in western Colorado have aimed at boosting grouse. A core population of 4,000 in Gunnison County, which plummeted to 2,500 after drought a decade ago, has stabilized. Three of six peripheral groups, ranging from about 10 to 200 grouse, have declined, federal data shows.

Two months ago, the feds embarked on an ecological rescue, declaring grouse threatened. Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe anticipated this compromise still would set off a legal stormfrom all sides.

The Gunnison grouse fight is separate from a broader battle over greater sage grouse, which inhabit 11 states, including Colorado, and require similar sage brush habitat.

Gov. John Hickenlooper in November warned that the state will sue the feds over any level of federal protection for Gunnison grouse, saying this would complicate state-led voluntary protection.

The attorney general in December filed a required notice of intent to sue.

Lawsuit blizzards drain Fish and Wildlife Service resources that otherwise could be devoted to recovery work. But the environment groups say legal action is the only way to compel action.

"Activities of people and businesses that overlap with the habitat where these species live is leading to their decline to extinction. If we're unwilling as a society to stop destroying habitat that rare species need to survive, then we should stop pretending we care about wildlife," WildEarth Guardians biologist Erik Molvar said. "There's a law on the books. It requires people and businesses to stop destroying the habitat. We in the environmental community are committed to enforcing that law."

© Copyright 2015 The Denver Post.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton