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Mono Basin sage grouse 

Reno Gazette-Journal, October 30, 2013

Don't end the grouse's dance
By Rob Mrowka

It’s a spot like few others in the world, a landscape continually shaped by millions of years of volcanic activity creating one of the most geologically diverse areas in North America.

The dramatic Mono Basin that straddles the California-Nevada border for more than 100 miles east of Yosemite National Park has given rise to a unique suite of plants and animals with very specialized habitat needs, including the increasingly rare bistate sage grouse.

Not surprisingly, the region’s carefully evolved equilibrium of life is easily disrupted by those who fail to consider its fragile balance.

The reckless alteration of that landscape has led to the rapid decline of the sage grouse, whose numbers have dropped by as much as 70 percent to between 1,800 and 7,400 individuals.

Last week, 11 years after conservation groups first sought protection for the grouse, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Endangered Species Act protections of the imperiled bird, along with designating more than 1.8 million acres of critical habitat.

The disappointing news is that the proposal includes a provision exempting agricultural and other activities from prohibitions against destroying habitat or otherwise harming the grouse for landowners. The exemption is available to landowners who have entered into voluntary conservation agreements. Voluntary conservation agreements are fraught with troubling limitations, most notably that they’re legally unenforceable, and to date offer inadequate protections by the service’s own admissions.

The sage grouse population is far too imperiled at this stage to gamble on vague assurances offered by these still largely experimental conservation agreements. The truth is, the service has no idea if they work. And there’s broad evidence these beautiful birds need the full protection of the Endangered Species Act right now.

Large expanses of the grouse’s habitat continue to be destroyed and fragmented by livestock grazing and invasive noxious weeds, urban and energy development, motorized recreation, wildfire and drought. And climate change is sure to exacerbate most or all of these threats.

If protected by the Endangered Species Act, there’s good reason to believe they’ll recover. In the 40 years since nearly unanimously passed by Congress, the act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals entrusted to its care and put many of them on the road to recovery.

For decades, these beautiful birds have faithfully returned to the same sage-covered flats to perform their mating dance.

With their stiffly fanned tail-feathers, constantly inflating bulbous neck sacks and shrill coos and popping cackles echoing off nearby rocks, the display remains one of the natural wonders of the West, an annual rekindling of life as predictable and reassuring as the cycles of the moon and the tides.

With the help of the time-proven tools of the Endangered Species Act, we can most certainly make sure neither we, nor our children, will have to stand witness to the last dance of these special birds.

Rob Mrowka is a Nevada-based ecologist and conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton