As they have for millennia, this spring, Gunnison sage-grouse will gather and engage in a mating ritual that has captivated generations of cowboys, ranchers, birders and biologists like me. And this year the spunky birds will have another reason to dance their hearts out. New polling has found that a majority of Coloradans who live in Gunnison sage-grouse range favor protecting them under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) until they are fully recovered.
For those who followed the hand-wringing and hoopla that took place after the 2014 decision to protect the Gunnison sage-grouse under the ESA, the support it enjoys from the local community might seem nothing short of remarkable. Elected officials were outspoken in their claims that listing the Gunnison sage-grouse as "threatened" under the ESA would be a disaster for the local community. However, the latest poll, conducted more than a year since the listing, shows that 66 percent of voters in Gunnison, San Miguel, Saguache and Montrose counties, the heart of Gunnison sage-grouse range, believe the bird should be protected under the ESA until it is fully recovered. This local support for the ESA is also reflected in other recent polling in Colorado and across the country.
The new poll provides other promising findings. Residents in Gunnison Country know their grouse, with 58 percent of voters indicating that they are familiar with the bird, and 84 percent of those respondents reporting that they view the species favorably. Furthermore, the local community believes the ESA is as a buttress for local recovery efforts. By a margin of more than 3-to-1, two-thirds of voters in the bird's range believe that federally listing the Gunnison sage-grouse as "threatened" has encouraged local efforts to conserve the bird, which is surprising considering that after the sage-grouse was listed under the ESA, numerous elected officials predicted that the community would walk away from conservation efforts put in place to protect the bird if it was listed.
The ESA is specifically designed to support continued state and local efforts to conserve listed species and their habitat. As a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service), I spent years implementing various federal conservation programs established under the ESA to fund research, species monitoring and conservation projects designed to recover imperiled species. In the case of the Gunnison sage-grouse, the Service has already invested at least $231,000 to support Gunnison sage-grouse conservation efforts, and the Service is encouraging expanded state and federal collaboration and coordination in the future.
And, contrary to some elected officials' fearful predictions, there are indications that the regional economy continues to thrive. For example, the unemployment rate averaged just 4.85 percent in Gunnison, Montrose, Saguache and San Miguel counties in December 2014, the month following listing of the species. That rate dropped to 3.65 percent a year later in December 2015.
The sage-grouse is a quintessential part of the American West, and recovering the bird and conserving its habitat will also benefit a host of other species - including elk, pronghorn, mule deer, and native trout - that are vital to local communities.
The ESA has for decades been portrayed by some as an economically destructive law, but the data continues to disprove that view. Residents of Gunnison Country have reminded us that conservation is a core American value. It is encouraging to see that southwestern Colorado supports protecting our wildlife heritage and maintaining ESA protections to ensure that imperiled species like the Gunnison sage-grouse will keep dancing for generations to come.