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U.S. taking steps to protect Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado, Utah

Published January 11, 2013 6:36 pm

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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Denver • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday the Gunnison sage grouse — which roams southwest Colorado and pockets of southeast Utah — is in danger of extinction, so the agency proposed protecting the chicken-like bird as an endangered species.

The agency has proposed designating 1.7 million acres in Colorado and parts of Utah as critical habitat for the bird known for elaborate courtship displays. The designation sometimes, but not always, means restrictions on human activities on that land.

The public and the scientific community have until March 12 to comment before the agency makes a final decision on whether to list the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered.

State and local officials in Utah were hoping to avoid federal protection of the birds. Same goes for Colorado, where Parks and Wildlife Director Rick Cables expressed disappointment with the proposal, which would give the state less flexibility in managing the species under federal law than if it were to be listed as threatened.

"For two decades our agency has worked closely with private landowners, county governments and others to protect and improve habitat, conduct research and work collaboratively for Gunnison sage grouse," Cables said in a statement. "We're disappointed in this listing decision. We'll continue to stand together and work closely with our partners in western Colorado that have been dedicated to keeping Gunnison sage grouse from being listed."

But the environmental group WildEarth Guardians was among those cheering the news.

"The Gunnison sage-grouse might finally get the protection it deserves," Mark Salvo, the group's wildlife program director, said in a statement. "Federal listing will buttress efforts to conserve the species."

The Gunnison sage grouse, a smaller relative of the greater sage grouse, occupies only about 7 percent of its historic range, the Fish and Wildlife Service said. About 5,000 breeding birds remain, the bulk of them in Colorado.

In Utah, federal protection for the Gunnison sage grouse wouldn't have nearly the same the economic consequences as such status would for the greater sage grouse, which inhabit far vaster terrain in the Beehive State.

Utah officials are working on conservation plans to avoid an endangered classification for the greater sage grouse.

The Salt Lake Tribune contributed to this story.