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, and the Mono Basin area is one of the most crucial of these regions. The loss of the already isolated "bi-state" sage grouse 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 bi-state sage grouse's danger, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied a 2005 petition filed by the Center and allies to recognize it 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.
In 2011 the Center reached a landmark agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service compelling the agency to move forward on protections for the bi-state 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 (at a point at which the population had declined by up to 70 percent). In 2015 the agency reversed course without adequate justification or explanation, finding that the bird "did not warrant" federal protection, so early the next year the Center and allies sued again for Endangered Species Act protections for bi-state sage grouse, and in 2018 the court agreed that the Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to ignore the significance of the likely future loss of several subpopulations in denying protection to these birds. A new decision on listing is expected in late 2019 or early 2020. Although Sage grouse in the Mono Basin have been sliding toward extinction for years, the Endangered Species Act can save them, but only if they actually get protected. We'll continue to fight for this unique bird — for as long as it takes.
The greater sage grouse as a species isn't having it much easier: Under the new Trump administration, in June 2017 Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans for a “review” threatening to undermine efforts to protect the greater sage grouse across 11 western states, therebygiving big oil companies and other polluters potential new access to vital grouse habitat.
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Contact: Lisa Belenky