3 minutes reading time (564 words)

The Muddy Waters Surround the FWS's Listing of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse

In the 2015 Appropriations Bill (Cromnibus), via a rider, Congress prohibited Interior from writing or issuing any final listing rule under Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) for several species of grouse. It now looks like that action could result in some unintended consequences for the recently listed Gunnison Sage-Grouse, a bird whose habitat is found in southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah. On November 12, 2014, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was listed under the ESA as “threatened.” When a species is listed as threatened rather than “endangered,” the ESA § 4 provides the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) with significant management flexibility. This regulatory flexibility includes the authority to craft a species-specific rule that can formally recognize state, local and private conservation efforts under ESA § 4(d). At the time of the listing, which was widely criticized in Colorado and Utah for failing to give enough credit to the State’s conservation efforts, the FWS kept the door open for future negotiations. FWS Director Ashe stated that FWS would draft and implement a so-called 4(d) rule in early 2015, which would make ESA compliance easier for landowners and industry.

The Cromnibus prohibition of expenditures for ESA § 4 listing actions appears to have inadvertently put a roadblock to the agency’s intent to draft a special rule for the Gunnison Sage-Grouse under section 4(d) that could have created exceptions and loosened the default requirements associated with the listing. It appears that Congress may have done so unwittingly, on the basis of language drafted long before the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was listed. Regardless of what Congress intended to do, it did not actually prevent the listing and may have made a bad situation worse.

Further muddying the waters on the listing is the fact that, on December 12, 2014, the State of Colorado filed a notice of intent to sue FWS over the listing of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. The ESA requires that parties planning to sue provide the agency with 60-days’ notice of that intent, and the Colorado Attorney General has indicated that Colorado will file the lawsuit when this period expires. Gunnison County has also filed a notice of intent to sue the FWS over the listing. Similarly, on January 20, 2015, John Harja of Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office announced that his office had filed a notice of intent to sue to challenge the listing. It has yet to be decided whether the State of Utah will file its own litigation or join the State of Colorado’s suit.

Also on January 20, 2015, the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a complaint in Federal District Court in Colorado arguing that the Gunnison Sage Grouse should have been listed as endangered, rather than threatened under the ESA. In the litigation, the groups are asking the court to remand the final rule listing the bird as threatened to the FWS for “an adequate finding that complies with all requirements of the ESA and the[Administrative Procedure Act.” In the meantime, the groups ask that the threatened listing remains in place.

The question remains whether, in the midst of these competing challenges and the federal governments’ self-inflicted prohibition on monetary expenditures, there will be an opportunity to find a compromise that could provide management flexibility and recognition of State, local, and private conservation efforts.

The listing of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse is available at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/gunnisonsagegrouse/GUSGFinalListingRule_11202014.pdf

Interior Will Make Greater Sage-grouse Determinati...
Nevada Association of Counties Sue over Candidate ...