Feds refuse again to list bi-state grouse along state line

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Two years after a U.S. judge ordered the Trump administration to reconsider its refusal to protect sage grouse populations along the California-Nevada line, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has again decided against listing the bi-state grouse as threatened or endangered.

The bi-state grouse is related to but separate from the greater sage grouse, which lives in a dozen Western states and is at the center of a dispute over the government's efforts to roll back protections adopted under President Barack Obama.

Monday's decision is the latest in the government's on-again, off-again federal actions to protect the game bird under the Endangered Species Act dating to 2013.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said its latest review indicates the status of the bi-state grouse's population has improved, thanks in large part to voluntary protection measures adopted by state agencies, local ranchers and other interested third parties.

Conservationists insisted the Trump administration is ignoring the fact the bird has been in serious trouble for more than a decade.

“Failure to protect bi-state sage grouse is pushing them closer to population collapse," said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Voluntary agreements won’t save them from extinction."

Laura Cunningham, California director of Western Watersheds Project, said the government’s own scientists estimate that only 3,305 bi-state sage grouse remain.

“It’s unconscionable that the Trump administration is abandoning this iconic bird,” said Michelle Bashin, president of Desert Survivors.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it's formally withdrawing a 2013 proposed rule to list the bi-state grouse as a distinct population of the greater sage grouse.

A federal judge in San Francisco ruled in March 2018 that the agency acted illegally the first time it denied protection of the bi-state grouse as a distinct population in California and Nevada. Five months later he ordered reinstatement of the proposed listing and designation of more than 2,800 square miles (7,251 square kilometers) of critical habitat along the Sierra's eastern front.

The agency said Monday it still believes the population is distinct from the greater sage grouse — living in six population subgroups on the southwest edge of the overall species. But it no longer believes there's any immediate threat to the survival of the subgroups.

"The best scientific and commercial data available indicated the threats … are reduced to the point that the (distinct population segment) does not meet the act's definition of an `endangered species' or of a `threatened species.'" the agency said.

The six bi-state grouse sub-populations at issue are spread across 7,000 square miles (18,129 square kilometers) of high desert sagebrush along the Sierra's eastern front stretching from near Carson City as far south as Bishop, California south of Yosemite National Park.

Paul Souza, the agency's regional director for the California-Great Basin Region, said partners in the Bi-State Local Area Working Group have conserved, restored or enhanced more than 156 square miles (404 square kilometers) of sagebrush habitat in the bi-state area since 2012, helping reduce habitat fragmentation, pinyon-juniper encroachment and loss of wet meadows used by sage grouse to raise their young.

"This partnership shows that conservation for at-risk species can be successful when we work together and leverage our resources," Souza said.

Steve Nelson, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's field manager in Bishop, agreed, along with the California and Nevada state leaders for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"This extremely positive news is very welcome," Carlos Suarez of California and Ray Dotson of Nevada said in a joint statement.

Conservationists disagreed.

“Most of the bi-state sage grouse populations are tiny, isolated groups that are under imminent threat of winking out,” Cunningham said. "These birds clearly need stronger legal protections.”