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What Does The Sage Grouse's New Status Really Mean?


An iconic American bird was granted long-awaited protection on Wednesday afternoon, to the applause of conservationists across the country. The Gunnison sage-grouse, a sagebrush-dwelling bird who lives mainly in Colorado and Utah, was designated "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Conservationists have praised the new listing, noting that the species is already categorized as endangered by the IUCN Red List, an international listing. Grouse are considered an ecologically valuable "indicator" species, meaning their health reflects the overall health of the ecosystem they live in.

Under the new designation, Colorado and Utah will be eligible for new federal money to fund local initiatives to save the Gunnison sage-grouse. The decision was based on "sufficient scientific and commercial data to propose listing." It doesn't cover the more well-known Greater sage-grouse.

"This listing accomplishes several important things," said Dr. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "First, it draws the world's attention to the fact that the Gunnison sage grouse is a unique species at significant risk of extinction."

The species, which was named in 2000, has a population of only a few thousand birds left. Of this small pool, many of them belong to small, isolated populations, and are vulnerable to genetic problems that could hasten their extinction, Fitzpatrick said.

"Finally, official protection under the Endangered Species Act qualifies the Gunnison Sage-Grouse for substantially increased federal funding and investments for state recovery actions, including landowner compensation."

There has already been pushback from opponents to the listing, because the decision is expected to hamper oil and gas exploration and ranching on 1.4 million acres of land. Colorado's Gov. John Hickenlooper has already threatened a lawsuit, saying, "We will do everything we can, including taking the agency to court, to fight this listing."

But conservationists will be there to defend the listing - and even want to take it a step further. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) says that the Gunnison sage-grouse only occupies 7 percent of its historic range now. They and other conservationists are calling for an upgraded listing to "endangered."

"The undeniable reality is that the Gunnison sage grouse is in on the verge of disappearing forever," said Amy Atwood, endangered species legal director at the CBD in a statement. "It needs the full suite of legal protections that only recognition as an endangered species can provide."

But according to the Audubon Society, grouse are more valuable than people realize. There's an estimated $1 billion outdoor recreational economy from the sagebrush lands where they live.