Forest Plan Challenged for Inadequate Mono Basin Sage Grouse Protections
New Forest Plan Amendment an Improvement, But Major Threats Remain
Mike Connor, Western Watersheds Project (818) 345-0425
Randi Spivak, Center for Biological Diversity, (310) 779-4894
Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy, (202) 888-7490
RENO, Nev.— Conservation groups today filed formal objections with the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest over its Bi-State Sage Grouse Plan Amendment because the proposed changes to public-land management fail to do enough to protect the imperiled Mono Basin sage grouse population.
“For certain activities like renewable energy developments and power lines, the Forest Service did a good job of providing strong protections for sage grouse and their habitats,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “But the new plan amendment fails to adequately address serious threats like hard-rock mining and geothermal development, which continue to jeopardize the survival of these charismatic birds.”
The Mono Basin greater sage grouse population, located in eastern California and western Nevada and also known as the “bi-state” population, is fragmented and geographically isolated from all other greater sage grouse populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently deciding whether to provide protection for the Mono Basin sage grouse population by listing it as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. The Service proposed listing the imperiled bird as a “threatened species” in October 2013; a final decision is due in April 2015, but Congress has blocked funding for a listing rule. One factor for determining whether a species warrants ESA protections is the “adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms,” which includes conservation actions in forest plans that guide management in species habitat.
“The threat of extinction of these beautiful birds in the Mono Basin area is very real, because continued destruction of sage brush habitat has reduced the population to isolated pockets of a few hundred birds each,” said Randi Spivak with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately the federal plans are not fully grounded in the best science and would not be applied with ironclad certainty. That is what is needed if we want any hope of recovering these imperiled birds.”
Livestock grazing is among the most significant threats to sage grouse in the Mono Basin area. Sage grouse require adequate cover from grasses in order to hide from natural predators. Because livestock eat the grass the birds need for cover and for food, overgrazing can result in grouse and their nests being more vulnerable to predators. Livestock also spread nonnative cheatgrass infestations that destroy habitat and lead to unnaturally frequent and severe wildfires.
“Although the Forest Service has the authority to designate special areas and manage those areas to primarily benefit imperiled species such as the Bi-State sage grouse, the Forest Service failed to even consider reducing the amount of sage grouse habitat grazed by livestock,” said Michael Connor of Western Watersheds Project. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest manages 60 grazing allotments that contain sage grouse habitat. These allotments encompass 419,299 acres of Bi-State grouse habitat within the amendment area and are currently permitted for 39,322 Animal Unit Months.
Scientific research demonstrates that grouse need seven inches of grass height for hiding cover in sensitive habitats. The Forest Service fails to include an enforceable requirement that the livestock industry leave behind enough grass to provide good-quality habitat.
“The Forest Plan needs to prevent levels of livestock grazing that lead to unhealthy rangelands and degraded sage grouse habitats,” said Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy. “The most prudent approach would also include an option of voluntary grazing permit retirement.”
Much of the remaining habitat for the Mono Basin sage grouse population is on federal land, so Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management sage grouse protections are of paramount importance in ensuring the bird survives and recovers.
“For many years, Mono Basin sage grouse habitats have suffered degradation or disappeared entirely, victim to rural sprawl and suffering from land-health problems caused by livestock grazing,” Molvar concluded. “This Forest Plan amendment is the federal government’s chance to do its part to get sage grouse protections right and put these birds on the road to recovery, before it’s too late.”