For Immediate Release, March 9, 2016
Lawsuit Seeks Endangered Species Act Protections for Imperiled Bi-state Sage Grouse
Tiny Mono Basin Populations in California, Nevada Face Imminent Threats
SAN FRANCISCO – A coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit today in federal court challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to protect the imperiled bi-state sage grouse population under the Endangered Species Act. These genetically unique and isolated sage grouse inhabit the Mono Basin on the California-Nevada border and face multiple threats to their survival.
In 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the bi-state sage grouse Distinct Population Segment as a “threatened species” under the Endangered Species Act, citing multiple significant threats to the grouse and their habitats, including infrastructure, livestock grazing, that spread of invasive species (particularly cheatgrass), range fires, urban sprawl, mining, energy development, recreation and climate change. But the agency reversed course in 2015 without adequate justification or explanation and found that the bird does not warrant federal protection.
The service claims its reversal is based on a collection of voluntary conservation measures restricted to private lands in the Bi-state Action Plan, which has been in place for more than a decade while the sage grouse continued to decline.
In 2013 the Fish and Wildlife Service deemed 1.8 million acres of habitat necessary for the survival and recovery of the bi-state sage grouse population and proposed it be protected as “critical habitat.” But in refusing to protect the bi-state sage grouse the service instead relied on measures under the Bi-state Action Plan in which a mere 40,000 acres of private lands will receive any kind of conservation attention. Not only is the Bi-state Action Plan inadequate but federal plans to improve bi-state sage grouse protections on public lands in Nevada remain unfinished, and in California federal planning to address sage grouse conservation has not even begun.
“This is an example of politics trumping science while the extinction of a unique population of sage grouse hangs in the balance,” said Ileene Anderson, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “As we have seen for more than a decade, these voluntary measures are not enough; without the legal protections of the Endangered Species Act, the sage grouse in Mono Basin have continued to decline, sliding toward extinction.”
“Livestock grazing is one of the primary threats to the survival of bi-state sage grouse populations, especially in the drier eastern deserts where the native birds populations are doing particularly poorly,” said Mike Connor, California director for Western Watersheds Project. “By ignoring the serious threats posed by grazing, the Service is utterly failing in its duty to preserve and protect sage grouse.”
Sage grouse populations in the bi-state area are isolated from each other by unsuitable habitats and now heavily developed basins. Overall, not one of the bi-state sage grouse populations is estimated to exceed 2,400 birds, far below the 5,000-bird threshold scientists consider the minimum viable population for this distinct population of sage grouse. Estimates also overstate populations based on limited data. For example, in the Pine Nut Mountains, the spring counts of strutting males ranged from zero to 38 birds between 2004 and 2014, yet the service claimed as many as 608 birds occur in this population.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both exaggerated sage grouse population estimates and ignored major threats facing these rare birds,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The surviving Mono Basin sage grouse subpopulations are tiny, isolated and face imminent threats. There is no credible excuse for denying the protections of the Endangered Species Act.”
Plaintiff groups include Desert Survivors, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project and are represented by attorneys from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Stanford Law Clinic.