The Gunnison sage-grouse (GUSG) is an iconic species recently proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In Colorado's Upper Gunnison River Basin, ranchers own the majority of water rights and productive river bottoms as well as approximately 30% of the most important GUSG habitat. This project used mixed-methods interviews with 41 ranch owners to document how ranchers perceive the proposed ESA listing and how they plan to respond to a listing decision. Results show that ranchers support on-the-ground GUSG conservation but are concerned about listing implications. Ranchers are most concerned about their ability to manage public and private lands productively and continue permitted grazing on public lands. If the species is listed, landowners plan to decrease participation in conservation strategies, including plans to adopt conservation easements, participation in conservation programs, and willingness to allow access to private lands for GUSG monitoring. Land-owners also express plans for increased sales of land and water, which could have negative consequences for GUSG habitat. This research suggests that changes in the application of the ESA could lead to beneficial conservation outcomes. These changes include increased transparency, ability to exclude stable populations from listing under the ESA, and commitment to work with local bodies if the species is listed. This project demonstrates the importance of qualitative research for understanding the indirect and unintended effects of species protections in an increasingly interconnected world.
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