Current and expected declines in Gunnsion sage-grouse numbers – due to threats from energy development, livestock grazing, habitat loss and fragmentation, and West Nile virus – was sufficient for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to recommend listing the bird as endangered in 2005. However, political appointees interfered in what is supposed to be a science-based decision and instead pushed the bird away from listing and off of the Candidate Species List – the list of species the Fish and Wildlife Service has identified as likely in need of protection.
Why Protection is Needed
The loss of sagebrush habitat has caused Gunnison sage-grouse to disappear from over 90 percent of its historic range. Oil and natural gas drilling, motorized recreation, livestock grazing and development have all contributed to the degradation of sagebrush steppe. Habitat fragmentation further compounds the problem by segmenting the grouse into smaller groups, which limits genetic flow between isolated populations. West Nile virus also poses a risk.
In 2005, biologists and field staff at the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the Gunnison sage-grouse as endangered – even having gone as far as drafting a press release and planning public hearings to announce the listing decision and proposal to designate over 900,000 acres as critical habitat. However, political appointees within the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C. intervened to prevent the listing.
Interference came most notably from Julie MacDonald, Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Though she was not a biologist, MacDonald repeatedly questioned biological conclusions in the listing proposal and was actively involved in the effort to rewrite the proposal to find that protection was “not warranted” for the grouse. MacDonald resigned in 2007, after an investigation by the Government Accountability Office detailed her role in interfering in Endangered Species Act decisions throughout the country.
Although the Gunnison sage-grouse was once ranked among species as most in need of protection on the Candidate Species List, the Bush Administration’s “not warranted” listing decision resulted in its removal from the list altogether in 2006. Unfortunately, the need for protection remains extremely high. The National Audubon Society has identified the Gunnison sage-grouse as one of the most endangered birds in North America and NatureServe lists the species as “Critically Imperiled.”