SAVING THE MONO BASIN SAGE GROUSE

Every spring, male sage grouse gather to strut their stuff in riveting mating rituals. Punctuating their displays with swishing, hooting, and popping sounds, males bob their heads, fan their tail feathers, raise their wings, and expand and contract distinctive yellow air sacs to compete for females’ favor. But sage grouse “leks,” or mating grounds, are becoming less and less lively as habitat dwindles and numbers decline — especially in the Mono Basin area, where an isolated, genetically distinct population is holding on by a thread.

Due to livestock grazing, development, off-road vehicles, and other threats, the greater sage grouse is disappearing from regions across the West; the Mono Basin area is one of the most crucial. The loss of this already isolated population would create a gap in the range of the species as a whole, covering 14 counties across two states and spanning thousands of square miles. It would ruin the integrity of unique Mono Basin ecosystems and rob the world of a genetically distinct, irreplaceable sage grouse population.

Despite the sage grouse’s danger, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied a 2005 petition filed by the Center and allies to recognize the Mono Basin sage grouse as a distinct population and federally grant it threatened or endangered status. While acknowledging the population’s uniqueness, in 2006 the Service failed to acknowledge significant evidence of its risk for extinction. Finally, two years after the petition was submitted and six months after we and our allies filed a lawsuit, the Service agreed to withdraw its 2006 pronouncement, in April 2008 announcing it would consider the bird for Endangered Species Act listing. But another two years after that, the agency declared that while the bird deserved Endangered Species Act listing, protection was “precluded” due to a lack of resources — so the Center filed a notice of intent to sue in March 2010. Even though the bird had been declared deserving of protection, in September 2010 the state of Nevada announced it would allow sage-grouse hunting in portions of eight counties.

Finally, in a critical victory for this bird, in 2011 the Center reached a landmark agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service compelling the agency to move forward on protections for the Mono Basin sage grouse population — as well as the greater sage grouse as a whole and more than 750 other species. As the result of our settlement, in 2013, the Service proposed Endangered Species Act protection for the Mono Basin sage grouse, along with a  proposed designation of 1,868,017 acres of critical habitat. By that time the population had declined by up to 70 percent.