Sage grouse may be listed as threatened

The seldom-seen, chicken-sized local species of the greater sage grouse took a step closer to being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act last Friday, Oct. 25, when the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the bird as a federally threatened species.

The decision to propose listing this Bi-state population of the bird, common in parts of Inyo, Alpine, and Mono counties and in several Nevada counties, came in spite of more than a decade of work to try to avoid such an action by local and federal government agencies, ranchers and energy developers, who have been working across state lines to avert the bird being listed.

“By these birds being listed, it will negate all the work that the BLM the U.S. Forest Service and all of the agencies, including Mono County, have made to avert this,” said Mono County Supervisor Tim Fesko, whose northern Mono County district encompasses much of the county’s agricultural lands, including the Bridgeport Valley and Antelope Valley near Walker.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that agricultural lands be excluded from the 1.8 million acres it wants to designate as critical habitat for the bird. Rob Mrowka of the Center for Biological Diversity, the group that originally sued the service over the grouse, said his group would fight the exclusion. Much of Mono County is included within this 1.8 million acre designation, according to county planner Scott Burns.

The Bi-state grouse is a subspecies of the greater sage grouse, common across much of the Great Basin. The Bi-state population, however, was long ago isolated from the greater grouse population and confined to areas of Nevada and Northeastern California long enough to become a separate species, according to Mrowka and the fish and wildlife service.

Now, the grouse’s numbers are declining due to a variety of reasons—including energy development, grazing and agricultural production, habitat fragmentation and climate change—by as much as 70 percent in the past several decades, according to Mrowka.

But not everyone agrees with the rate of decline, or the genetic analysis that divides the local grouse into a subspecies suitable for listing under the ESA, let alone how to save and protect the species.

In fact, the sage grouse issue has divided the American West for decades, and Mono County rancher Fred Fulstone shows why the issue is so controversial.

“The biggest problem with the sage hen today is that we have had unproductive and unsuccessful sage hen management by the fish and game biologists since about 1980,” Fulstone said in a prepared comment to the Mono County Board of Supervisors in September.

“Sage hen numbers started going down when agency biologist numbers started going up. From 1950 to 1980, we had thousands and thousands of sage hen (on our ranch lands) along with other wildlife. That was due to the very successful predator programs. Fish and game doesn’t remember that we had 10 times more domestic sheep and nearly twice as many cattle on the range,” he said.

“Those were the years we had a very effective predator program … but fish and wildlife wants to blame the sage hen’s decline on agriculture.”

Other issues worry Fesko, who said the lack of certainty about what the proposed listing will mean to local recreation, ranching and farming makes it hard to know how to take concrete action.

He is also worried the whole process has been biased in favor of protecting the bird—at the expense of local needs and businesses.

“The worst thing is, I don’t think they are listening to the science on this,” he said, referring to the fish and wildlife service. “I think they have made up their minds and they are going to do what they are going to do.”

“There is 10-plus years of work and research into this and we have made great strides in protecting these birds, not to mention the threat that the Yosemite toad and the Mountain yellow-legged frog might also get listed.”

Mrowka said the science is clear about both the genetics and the reasons for the bird’s decline, however.

He also said the reason the CBD has pursued pressuring the fish and wildlife service to list the grouse under the ESA is because the work done to supposedly protect the bird to this point has all been voluntary—and, he said, ineffective.

“It looked good on paper but there was no way to enforce it or to provide regulatory assurance,” he said.

In addition, at least some federal agencies, such as the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest (part of the forest is near Bridgeport) has made decisions such as allowing an increase in OHV use near grouse breeding grounds, expanding leases for geothermal use and more, he said.

“There was one case where they allowed a sheep grazing permittee to graze sheep right on top of a lek (grouse breeding ground),” he said.

Next in the process is a 60-day comment period ending Dec. 27 for the proposed listing, with two public hearings planned in the area (TBA).

After that, the fish and wildlife service will take under consideration input by scientists and the public before making a final decision, scheduled for next year under a settlement agreement with the CBD.

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