ENDANGERED SPECIES

Interior to withdraw listing for grouse in Nev., Calif.

Federal protections are no longer needed for a unique population of sage grouse along the Nevada-California border thanks to millions of dollars spent to conserve its sage-steppe habitat, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will announce this afternoon, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service official.

Jewell will join Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) in Reno to announce the department's decision to withdraw a proposed "threatened" listing for the bi-state sage grouse, a small, distinct population that has been breeding separately from other sage grouse for thousands of years.

The agency will also withdraw its proposal to designate 1.8 million acres of mostly federal land as critical habitat. Protections were first proposed in October 2013 due to habitat threats from invasive species, changing wildfire patterns, the encroachment of conifer trees, grazing and infrastructure development.

The decision was hailed by ranching advocates and sportsmen's conservation groups, but was criticized by other wildlife advocates who said it flouted the best available science and relies on incomplete federal land-use plans.

Today's decision only affects the bi-state grouse, whose numbers have held relatively steady at about 5,000 over the past decade. Fish and Wildlife in September will decide separately whether Endangered Species Act protections are needed for greater sage grouse, which number in the hundreds of thousands and roam across 11 Western states.

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Fish and Wildlife in 2010 said the bi-state grouse warranted ESA protection due to threats from invasive cheatgrass and medusahead rye and the encroachment of pinyon and juniper trees that act as straws sucking up scarce water and provide perches for sage grouse predators, among other threats.

The grouse was named a "candidate" species -- lacking federal protections -- due to higher listing priorities for other species. However, FWS in 2011 signed a sweeping settlement with environmental groups that set a deadline this month for deciding whether to give the grouse full protections.

Since then, federal agencies and conservation partners have mounted a furious push to bolster protections on the bird's 4.5 million acres of high-desert sagebrush.

The Agriculture and Interior departments last June announced $32 million in federal funds would be invested over the next decade, much of it dedicated to securing conservation easements on private lands that provide key water and forage for newly hatched sage grouse chicks. Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service today said it has enrolled 7,300 acres of key habitat in perpetual conservation easements with an additional 4,500 acres in progress.

NRCS has also helped ranchers restore 3,830 acres of sagebrush steppe through removal of encroaching conifers, with an additional 1,620 acres scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015.

The Forest Service this summer is slated to begin treatments to improve sagebrush ecosystem health on 29,000 acres of grouse lands.

"Today's decision is great news for this population of sage grouse and all the stakeholders who rolled up their sleeves and demonstrated that the states can work with the federal government to achieve a positive outcome," said Miles Moretti, CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. "We're poised to get the same result for the remaining populations of sage grouse, if we stay the course and don't back away from strong conservation efforts that will benefit all sagebrush-dependent species."

Dustin Van Liew of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a ranching trade group, also lauded today's decision, saying, "Livestock grazing and wildlife habitat conservation go hand in hand.

"We hope the secretary will take the same consideration for the greater sage grouse, which habitat spans across 11 Western states and encompasses 186 million acres of both federal and private land," he added.

Even if Fish and Wildlife had decided to finalize a threatened listing for the bi-state bird, a legislative rider Congress tucked into last December's omnibus spending bill would have prevented ESA protections from taking hold until at least October.

But FWS Director Dan Ashe said last December -- before the spending bill was passed -- that he anticipated the listing rule could be withdrawn.

"I'm ahead of myself here, but if the BLM and the Forest Service complete their plans as we expect them to, I think we're going to have a not warranted determination with the bi-state grouse," Ashe said then at the Western Governors' Association winter meeting in Las Vegas.

Federal scientists believe there are about 1,800 to 7,400 bi-state grouse remaining. They look and behave similarly to their greater sage grouse kin and require the same habitat of sage brush, grasses and forbs. But they are considered a distinct population segment under ESA due to their genetic uniqueness and their geographical separation from other birds.

A handful of environmental groups today blasted the government's decision.

Michael Connor, the California director for Western Watersheds Project, said FWS as recently as last December had assigned the bi-state grouse the maximum priority for listing based on the gravity of threats.

"The service's backpedaling in claiming that unfinished management plans and voluntary, cooperative agreements will protect the species is untrue and smacks of political expediency," he said.

None of the six populations of bi-state grouse has exceeded 2,500 birds over the past decade, WWP said in a joint media statement with the American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians. In contrast, Fish and Wildlife decided last year to list as threatened the Gunnison sage grouse, whose main population in western Colorado numbers roughly 4,000 birds.

The four groups earlier this month said a draft record of decision released in February by the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to amend land-use plans and bolster grouse protections on 1 million acres of forestland fell short of the protections needed (Greenwire, April 8).

Fish and Wildlife in its October 2013 listing proposal had warned that existing regulatory mechanisms -- chiefly the BLM and Forest Service land-use plans -- were "inadequate" to protect the grouse. No federal land-use plan amendments have been completed.

"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."

Today's listing withdrawal was based in large part on the availability of $45 million in funding to implement a 2012 conservation action plan crafted by state and federal agencies, ranchers, conservation groups and university scientists. The plan has addressed the major threats to bi-state grouse and includes management prescriptions that are improving habitat now, FWS said.

When completed, the land-use plan amendments at BLM and the Forest Service will address remaining threats, the agency said.

Today's decision contrasts with FWS's decision last November to finalize a proposed threatened listing for the Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado and Utah over the strong objections of elected officials from those states (Greenwire, Nov. 12, 2014).

At about 5,000 birds, Gunnison sage grouse populations are roughly the same as bi-state birds. But the vast majority of Gunnison grouse are located in one population in Gunnison County, Colo., with six smaller, isolated satellite populations that "are much less robust," with populations as small as 16 birds, FWS said in a statement last November. "If anything happened to the core population, healthy satellite populations would be essential to enable the species to rebound," the agency said.

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email: ptaylor@eenews.net

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