Endangered fish of the Green and Yampa rivers. [Photo courtesy of NPS/Erin Cobb]

Endangered species in Grand County — like the Mexican spotted owl and the bonytail chub — may get a small helping hand from the Grand County Council.

At its regular meeting on Oct. 16, the Grand County Council voted to send a letter of support for a draft of legislation reforming the Endangered Species Act.

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973 to protect threatened plant and animal species from becoming extinct.

U.S. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming asked the Grand County Council for a letter of support for ESA reform. The ESA outlines regulations to protect both the species and their habitats.

“We must do more than just keep listed species on life support — we need to see them recovered,” Barrasso wrote in a press release. “This draft legislation will increase state and local input and improve transparency in the listing process. It will promote the recovery of species and allow local economies to flourish. I have worked closely with the bipartisan Western Governors’ Association to draft a bill that works for endangered species and people alike.”

The ESA is implemented by two agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI): the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The agencies identify species in decline and may, using specific criteria, list them as “threatened” or “endangered.” The Grand County region is home to several species listed under the ESA, and federal land management agencies with jurisdiction in the area — including the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — are tasked with the protection of the natural resources.

Barrasso, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), has released a draft of ESA reform legislation. According to the July 2 press release announcing the draft, the purpose of the reform is to reauthorize the bill, which hasn’t happened since 1992, and to elevate the role of states and increase transparency in the implementation of the act.

“[The reform draft] also prioritizes resources to better meet its conservation goals and provides regulatory certainty to promote conservation and recovery activities,” the press release said.

Grand County Council chair Mary McGann said such requests to the council are common.

“We’re always giving letters of support,” she said, adding that the council has sent letters of support for the Grand County Children’s Justice Center and Four Corners Mental Health.

With a unanimous vote of approval on Oct. 16, the Grand County Council supplied a short letter to Barrasso supporting the reform legislation.

“We strongly support the emphasis your draft takes toward recovery of listed & threatened

species with plans that are locally developed,” the council’s letter said. “Our experience in protecting the greater sage grouse clearly demonstrates that top-down restrictions do not work, but that ground up locally developed plans give the species the best chance for recovery while taking into account the legitimate needs of local residents.”

The greater sage grouse is a well-known species among land managers and conservationists in Western states. Although it is not currently listed as threatened or endangered, extensive collaborative efforts to protect sage grouse habitat have sparked some controversy between groups with conflicting interests in land use. However, southeastern Utah, unlike other regions in the state, is not particularly known for greater sage grouse habitat.

Pam Riddle, wildlife biologist at BLM-Moab, named some examples of local species that are protected under the ESA.

“Jones cycladenia, which is a threatened plant that grows on steep slopes associated with a certain type of geology,” Riddle said. “The Mexican spotted owl is a threatened species in our area and we regularly survey its habitat following specific protocols, and Southwestern willow flycatcher is an endangered species you may see in our riparian areas as they migrate though our area.”

The Mexican spotted owl is listed as “threatened,” and the species’ global populations are predicted to decline by 25 to 50 percent over the long-term, according to the NPS, and its habitats in Utah are “critical” to its survival.

Riddle said that four species of endangered fish live in the Colorado River: humpback chub, razorback sucker, bonytail chub and Colorado pikeminnow.

Little is known about the endangered bonytail chub. The FWS said this desert fish has experienced “the most abrupt decline in recent years of any of the long-lived fishes native to the main-stems of the Colorado River system.” No young fish have been found in recent years, the FWS reports, and while it was once the most abundant fish in wide sections of rivers, the remaining bonytail chubs now live in restricted areas of water in rocky canyons.

Megan Nelson works in Salt Lake City on policy, government, and external affairs for The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental nonprofit that works to conserve and protect natural resources. She said some of the proposed reforms to the ESA sound like a good idea, but cautions that some of the changes would not be in the best interest of declining species.

“The proposed changes to inter-agency consultation, administrative changes to increase efficiency while ensuring effectiveness, and consistency between agencies could result in conservation benefits for species and habitat,” Nelson said.

“On the other hand,” she continued, “some of the proposed reforms could result in undercutting current species protections, such as withdrawal of the FWS General 4(d) rule or changes to the order and standard for designating Unoccupied Critical Habitat.”

The FWS General 4(d) rule instructs FWS to issue regulations it sees as “necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of threatened species,” allowing for case-specific rules for different species in different circumstances.

Nelson said that the current language of the ESA does not take economic factors into consideration when determining whether a species should be listed as threatened or endangered.

Listings are determined “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.” 

Under the reform draft, economic values would become part of the consideration process. Nelson doesn’t think that should happen.

“Any reforms to the ESA should result in positive outcomes for species and their habitats,” she said. “Any reforms that weaken the essential protections for species and habitat that the ESA provides should not move forward.”

Changes could affect endangered plants, birds and fish in Moab area, policy expert says

“The Mexican spotted owl is a threatened species in our area and we regularly survey its habitat following specific protocols, and Southwestern willow flycatcher is an endangered species you may see in our riparian areas as they migrate though our area.”