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For Immediate Release, March 24, 2009

Contacts:  Mark Salvo, Sagebrush Sea Campaign ( 503) 757-4221
Becky King, San Miguel County, Colorado ( 970) 728-3879
Erin Robertson, Center for Native Ecosystems ( 303) 546-0214 x 5
Amy Atwood, Center for Biological Diversity, ( 541) 914-8372

Gunnison Sage Grouse May Get Federal Protection:
Interior Department Calls for New Decision Due to Bush Administration's
Political Interference in Species Science

TELLURIDE, Colo.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has filed a notice with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., stating that, in light of the latest investigative report on the Bush administration’s misapplication of the Endangered Species Act, the agency will reconsider its April 2006 decision to deny protection to the Gunnison sage grouse. The report, released in December, was the second by the inspector general for the Department of the Interior that found that former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald and other Bush administration officials interfered with federal biologists’ decision-making for multiple endangered species, including the sage grouse. The Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated that it will confer with plaintiffs concerning next steps for the species.

"We are eager to secure protection for the Gunnison sage grouse as soon as possible. Long-term viability of the species is unquestionably at risk now, and every additional delay decreases the likelihood of a full recovery," said Commissioner Joan May of San Miguel County, Colorado.

San Miguel County led a coalition of conservation and government accountability organizations to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service over its denial of Endangered Species Act protection for the Gunnison sage grouse in November 2006. Significant evidence was already available that Julie MacDonald and other officials ha d interfered with the agency biologists’ findings. The latest report by the inspector general confirmed previous information that Bush administration appointees pressured Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and other staff to avoid protecting endangered species.

“I am not surprised that the Service will reconsider the earlier decision by officials in the Bush administration stripping candidate status from Gunnison sage-grouse," said Dr. Clait Braun, former avian research program manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “It is time to move forward to benefit Gunnison sage grouse and the habitats they depend upon before it is too late for some populations to recover."

Audubon has identified Gunnison sage grouse as among the 10 most endangered birds in the United States. The Endangered Species Coalition also released a report in December identifying Gunnison sage grouse as one of the 10 most imperiled species in the country. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released another report last week, The State of the Birds 2009, that found that western deserts and grasslands — home to Gunnison sage grouse and other sensitive species — are among the most degraded habitats in the country.

“Endangered wildlife like Gunnison sage grouse deserve a fair chance at protection,” said Erin Robertson, senior staff biologist for Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver. “After years of political interference, it is time for a speedy, unbiased decision that will provide the Gunnison sage grouse the help it needs.”

In addition to San Miguel County, plaintiffs in the current litigation include (in alphabetical order) Audubon, Black Canyon Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Native Ecosystems, The Larch Company, Public Employees for Environmental Protection, Sheep Mountain Alliance, and WildEarth Guardians. Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys with the Center for Biological Diversity and San Miguel County, as well as the Western Environmental Law Center.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized its error,” said Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians. “The next step is to protect the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.”

The Gunnison sage grouse is distinct from greater sage grouse, identified by researchers as early as the 1970s and recognized as a new species by the American Ornithologists' Union in 2000. While its historic range may have included parts of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, the species now occurs only in eight small populations in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Gunnison sage grouse have experienced significant declines from historic numbers, and only about 4,000 breeding individuals remain. Livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, motorized recreation, and urbanization have contributed to the long-term decline of Gunnison sage grouse.

“It is promising that the Department of the Interior has apparently realized that defending Julie MacDonald’s antics in this matter would be a waste of resources, and has voluntarily gone back to the drawing board,” said Amy Atwood, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the attorneys in the litigation.

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