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Nothing to grouse about

March 12, 2013

A little bird could hold the fate of Mono County in its sharp talons

It is hard to imagine that the fate of Mono County might rest not in its mountains, not in its ski hills, or bike trails or world renown trails, but in something far more innocuous.

A little bird, no bigger than a chicken.

Clucking and clattering not too far outside the Mammoth Yosemite Airport and a half dozen other places in the county, sage grouse is at the center of a nation-wide storm that most people are oblivious to, but that could determine the county’s ability to grow, diversify, and thrive.

That is because the little duff-colored, fan-tailed bird is just one step away from being listed as a federally endangered species. If that happens, the 1973 Endangered Species Act’s powerful regulations allow it to stop projects that might negatively impact the bird’s ability to survive.

It’s why the ESA is the bane of the oil and gas industry, and the Holy Grail for habitat and wildlife advocates. It was the main issue that concerned developers of the Mammoth Yosemite Airport, which happens to be located very near a population of the grouse.

The bird has been treading the threatened or endangered line for decades, as land managers in both Nevada and California try to figure out ways to keep it off the much-feared endangered species list.

Listing the bird would mean every action that might affect the bird in a negative way—from expanding an airport runway to building a new school to putting in a bike or OHV trail—must be scrutinized and approved by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

Any action that would possibly cause any drop in the bird’s number could possibly be outright banned, making the ESA one of the most powerful laws in the nation for wildlife advocates.

In Mono County, the bird lives, breeds and nests in the great, rolling sage flats that give it its primary source of food. This area covers much of the Eastern Sierra in places like Long Valley near Crowley, or the flats above Fales Hotspring on U.S. 395 west of Devil’s Gate summit

Even though the little bird has the potential to change the way the county does—or does not do—business, the whole grouse issue mostly stays in the background these days due to a recession that has brought development projects to a stop.

After years of stability with the grouse—no terrifying slumps in numbers but no dramatic surges that would move the bird far away from the list either—something is finally changing.

During the Mono County Board of Supervisor meeting Tuesday, March 5, Steve Nelson with the Bureau of Land Management said that California and Nevada have created such a strong management and cooperative data sharing protocol for the grouse that it has become a primer for other states struggling with the same issues across the country.

“After not taking this issue that seriously for years, we have made tremendous progress,” he said. “I know we can do this, I know we can keep this bird from being listed.”

The Mono County Board of Supervisors, who have been hearing updates on the little birds for the past decade, were wary, but hopeful.

“At some point, the economy is going to come back and there will be development pressure in areas where the birds live,” said Supervisor Byng Hunt.

“I’m glad this new program is getting ahead of this instead of constantly playing catch-up.”

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