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Litigation surrounds the Gunnison grouse of Colorado

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“It is really hard to tell the story of Gunnison sage grouse without talking about the litigation surrounding the bird,” said Gunnison County, Colo. Commissioner Jonathon Houck. 

Houck was a speaker at the recent Western Governors’ Association Working Lands Roundtable discussing regulatory certainty and litigation with endangered and threatened species in western states. 

The Gunnison grouse

“Up until about 2000, it was believed both the Gunnison and Greater sage grouse were the same species, despite some notable differences,” Houck explained. “After much research, it was determined Gunnison were separate from Greater sage grouse.” 

Houck explained Gunnison grouse are about one-third of the size of Greater sage grouse and have some notably different features. 

“Eighty-five percent of the Gunnison sage grouse population is in Gunnison County Colorado in the Gunnison basin,” Houck noted. “The bird’s entire habitat stretches across 11 counties in southwestern Colorado, including a single county in Utah.” 

Houck explained Gunnison sage grouse are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). ESA has designated 1.7 million acres as critical habitat for the bird. 

“According to 2016 data, there were about 5,200 Gunnison sage grouse total, 4,200 of which were in Gunnison County,” said Houck. 

Local efforts 

Houck explained conservation efforts within the Gunnison Basin began long before the Gunnison sage grouse was even recognized as a separate species from Greater sage grouse. 

“Gunnison County has taken sage grouse issues very seriously for a very long time,” said Houck. “These efforts have been championed by the agriculture community in the area.” 

“In the 1990s, before the Gunnison sage grouse was recognized as a species, a working group was formed in the county to work on conservation and ensure the needs of the bird were met,” Houck explained. “The group was a pretty loose-knit group of local ranchers and agency people with the common goal of protecting the Gunnison sage grouse.” 

“Once Gunnison became separate from Greater sage grouse, there was a petition to list the bird as endangered in 2005,” said Houck. “The petition was found to be warranted but the bird was not listed.” 

Houck explained, at the urging of the Gunnison County Stock Growers Association, a strategic sage grouse committee was formed to ensure the work of previous groups would be properly recognized. 

“The county formed a specific sage grouse committee and hired a wildlife specialist for the county,” Houck said. “In addition, land use rules were introduced, and a range-wide plan was developed by state and federal biologists.” 

Federal listing 

Despite local efforts totaling nearly $20 million over time and the original target of 4,500 birds being met, the listing of the bird was challenged again, and the Gunnison sage grouse was listed as a threatened species, according to Houck. 

“The listing shifted the goals of the original proposal,” said Houck. “Gunnison County followed the urging of federal agencies to focus solely on the population within the Gunnison Basin and not worry about satellite populations of the bird.” 

Houck explained the new proposal cited the smaller satellite populations as the reason for the listing. 

“The satellite populations of Gunnison sage grouse are notably smaller. The second largest population in San Miguel, Colo. has 250 birds, and the other satellite populations each have less than 100 birds,” said Houck.

Houck noted after the bird was officially listed as threatened in 2006, environmental groups sued to have the bird listed as endangered.

“When the question of listing the bird came up again, Gunnison County didn’t want to throw its neighbors under the bus,” said Houck. “Gunnison County was able to come up with a strategy that worked, with impressive numbers of birds to prove it.”

Along with the state of Colorado and other agencies, Gunnison County fought opposing groups to keep the bird listed as threatened, instead of listing up as endangered. 

“The thing about any species being listed is these environmental groups go in and promise local areas will get the support they need from government agencies, and that generally never happens,” he said. “These groups win their fight and move on to the next issue, and we are left holding the bag.” 

Local implications 

“In Gunnison Basin, we will continue to do what we have been doing for over 20 years,” said Houck. “But having the federal listing makes conservation much more complicated at the local level.”

“We absolutely would not be as successful as we have been with Gunnison grouse if it weren’t for the ranching community,” said Houck. “But the changes associated with a listing under ESA could really change how much ranchers are able to help.” 

Houck explained if the bird were ever to be uplisted to endangered status, it could fundamentally alter the ranching landscape in the area. 

“With an uplisting, we fear ranchers would lose some of their grazing permits, which fundamentally changes their operations and ability to help conserve the bird,” Houck said. “In the end, the Gunnison sage grouse is the loser in that scenario.” 

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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