Feds Backtrack On Protecting Bi-State Sage-Grouse
ESA Protections Denied Despite Ongoing Threats From Mining, Overgrazing, and Rural Sprawl
Michael Connor, Western Watersheds Project (818) 345-0425
Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy (202) 888-7490
Randi Spivak, Center for Biological Diversity, (310) 779-4894
RENO, Nev.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today abandoned its plan to give Endangered Species Act protection to Mono Basin sage grouse, a small and isolated population of prairie birds in Nevada and California that remain under threat from grazing, habitat loss and mining development. The agency’s decision ignores scientific recommendations for reversing the birds’ steep decline and relies on unproven conservation agreements with state and local communities.
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.
“As recently as December 2014, the Service considered that the magnitude of threats faced by bi-state sage-grouse was so high that the birds were assigned the maximum priority for listing,” said Michael Connor, California director of Western Watersheds Project. “The Service’s backpedalling in claiming that unfinished management plans and voluntary, cooperative agreements will protect the species is untrue, and smacks of political expediency.”
The bi-state “Distinct Population Segment,” which was proposed for listing as “threatened,” is an isolated and important subpopulation of a species that is eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The 2013 listing proposal cited the small population size and “inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms,” coupled with multiple threats from livestock grazing, invasive plants such as cheat grass, fire, energy development, mining, infrastructure, urbanization of habitat and other factors all combining to justify protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The six populations in the Mono Basin area have not topped 2,500 birds over the past decade, according to official estimates. By contrast the largest population of Gunnison sage grouse, which the Service recently listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, is nearly 5,000 birds.
Given the known threats to bi-state sage grouse, the conservation measures do not protect adequate protection. Specific shortcomings include: 1) failure to protect sage grouse nests with adequate grass cover to hide eggs from predators; 2) calling for livestock to reduce flammable cheat grass, a practice that has not been proven to be effective; 3) no restrictions on geothermal leases that would cover 143,000 acres of habitat; 4) no restrictions on mining; and 5) no requirement to limit overall disturbance density to under 3 percent of habitat.
“Many of the most serious threats to the Mono Basin sage grouse remain unaddressed, and its tiny and isolated populations are under imminent threat of extinction,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “Today’s decision does nothing to resolve the problems facing this special population, it just punts the issue to the courts.”
Recent planning efforts on public lands still await completion, and conservation groups have objected and submitted formal protests.
“The Service is failing to keep up its end by not protecting enough public lands to ensure the grouse’s conservation,” said Steve Holmer with American Bird Conservancy. “We support an endangered listing for this population due to its very small size and inadequate federal management plans; no listing at all defies common sense and the best available science.”
“These birds are in serious trouble, and yet the government is doing nothing to restrict destructive hardrock mining, geothermal development or off-road vehicle races,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Half measures may delay extinction, but they won’t prevent it.”