Grouse delisting illegal, judge says
May 18, 2018
If the bi-state sage grouse had as many lives as its endangered species listing, it wouldn't need one.
A federal judge resurrected the possibility of listing the bird in habitats that include the Pine Nut Mountains on Tuesday.
In his ruling, U.S. District Court Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero granted a challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services withdrawal of a proposal listing the bird.
The failure of a study to accurately predict the stability population of bi-state sage grouse in the Pinenut Mountains led a federal judge to overturn a decision not to list the bird.
Spero determined that the services adoption of the main conclusion of the study prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management was a crucial failing of the decision.
"The service itself recognized that the failure to accurately predict the population in the Pine Nut Population Management Unit cast significant doubt on the validity of the Integrated Management Unit as a whole," according to the ruling.
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Several environmental organizations, including Desert Survivors, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project sued the Department of Interior over its 2015 decision not to list the bird.
The Nevada Association of Counties and Mono County intervened on behalf of the Department of Interior in an effort to protect the decision.
The judge referred to a portion of the Endangered Species Act which says that a species is eligible if it could become extinct over a significant portion of its range.
The bi-state sage grouse is a distinct genetic species of the greater sage grouse, which ranges along the Nevada-California border. According to the government, the bird's historical range is half of that it was when Nevada became a state in 1864.
It is estimated there are between 2,500 and 9,830 bi-state sage grouse living from the Pine Nuts south to southern Mono County.
The largest population of birds lives near Bodie and southern Mono County.
Populations in other areas are "below the minimum threshold for long-term persistence," according to the government.
Because populations in those areas are small, they are more likely to be affected by disease, epidemics, predation and environmental catastrophes, such as large wild fires.
For most of the 21st Century, Nevada has worked to try and conserve sage grouse habitat, in part to prevent its listing.
Among the dangers facing the grouse is the conversion of its preferred sagebrush habitat to piñon pine and juniper.
Fires that eliminate habitat and isolate populations are one of the key threats to the bird.
The wildlife service issued a proposed rule to list the bi-state sage grouse in October 2013.
In June 2014, the government closed public comment with a half dozen letters of commitment that would provide $45 million to help improve grouse habitat and a report that the bird's population was stable.
The study prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management indicated that the population was stable and that efforts were being made to improve the bird's habitat. In response the proposal to list the bi-state grouse as endangered was withdrawn.
Opponents claimed the withdrawal failed to adhere to best available science and the service unlawfully defined range as the area inhabited by the bird at time of listing, instead of its historical range.
The also said that concluding a species inhabiting less than half of its original habitat could afford to lose three of its six remaining populations and not be at risk of extinction.
In questioning the study, which predicted positive growth in the Pine Nuts population unit, the plaintiffs pointed out that of the 10 leks observed in 2013, non had a male strutting, which only one had a male strutting in 2014.
Even in its notice of withdrawal, the service said it was treating results for the Pine Nut population with caution.
The study's authors also had no data from two of the geographically largest population units.