Feds opt not to list Mono Basin sage grouse

Conservation efforts persuaded officials that the Nevada-California population will fare well.

 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced this week that the small, isolated population of greater sage grouse that lives along the border between California and Nevada does not need to be put on the endangered species list. The decision reflects the success of a 15-year effort to conserve the birds’ sagebrush habitat, she said. 

Those efforts helped diminish threats including urban sprawl, fire and encroaching trees.

“What’s more, the collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and California are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development,” said Jewell.

Mono Basin sage grouse.
Photo courtesy US Agriculture Department.

Biologists estimate that between 2,500 and 9,000 of these birds live in about 4.5 million acres of high-desert sagebrush. The government calls them the bi-state distinct population segment because they differ genetically from the larger population of greater sage grouse that makes its home in 11 states across the West.

About 18 months ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the bi-state population as threatened because its habitat had been reduced and segmented. It was considered more vulnerable than the 11-state population of greater sage grouse. A listing decision on that population is expected by September 30. In 2010, the agency determined the greater sage grouse warranted being added to the endangered list, but opted not to do so at the time because other rare species were higher priorities.

State officials saw Tuesday’s decision as a good omen that the federal government may opt to not list the larger population either.  States and communities have been working to conserve the birds in hopes of avoiding a listing. They fear an endangered species listing could impede energy extraction, ranching, and other activities, hurting their economies.

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval welcomed the news and said it was evidence “that sage grouse and economic development can coexist in both the bi-state area and across the range of the greater sage grouse.”

In Nevada and California, local, state, tribal and federal agencies worked with conservation groups and ranchers to counter threats to the birds. Already, they’ve conserved thousands of acres of prime sagebrush habitat on private land under conservation easements, which bind owners not to develop land. Their $45 million plan for the next decade includes nearly 80 habitat restoration projects. These include removing pinyon and juniper trees and invasive grasses, preserving additional landscapes with conservation easements and managing wild horses and livestock to minimize habitat damage.

Aerial view of removal of pinyon and juniper trees in BLM grazing allotment east of Minden, Nevada. Photo courtesy US Agriculture Department.

HCN recently reported on some of the other state and federal efforts underway on behalf of sage grouse.

“The efforts of the local working group and the partnerships they’ve built over the past decade are truly unprecedented,” said Dan Ashe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director. “They have set the stage for the next generation of conservation and convinced us that the sage-grouse population has a bright future in the bi-state region.”

A ten-year study of the bi-state population released last year showed it was holding it was own. Only one subpopulation showed significant decline and appeared “to be the only one with compelling evidence within the bi-state that is currently at risk of extinction.”  The study, led by US Geological Survey biologist Peter Coates, concludes that “the preponderance of evidence suggests that sage-grouse populations are stable within bi-state DPS in its entirety over the period of 2003–2012.”

But some wildlife advocates say the bi-state population is too small to consider it OK.

“It is stable, but it’s stable on the brink of extinction, which means they need protection,” said Erik Molvar, who coordinates the sage grouse campaign for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “Conservation measures are great. But these are not the people posing the biggest threats.”

Hard rock mining, geothermal development, off-road vehicle races, development of subdivisions and livestock grazing are major threats to bi-state sage grouse that have not been adequately addressed, according to conservation groups.

Randi Spivak, public lands director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management could protect the birds from these threats, but have yet to.

Other conservation and hunting groups, however, supported Jewell’s decision not to list the birds in Nevada and California. They lauded the major effort underway to preserve sagebrush habitat across the West, which has benefited many animals and plants, not just the chicken-like bird with a dramatic courtship dance that inspired the efforts.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's Washington, DC correspondent.