SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided the sage grouse didn’t merit endangered species status—but on Tuesday, a federal judge disagreed.
“We’re thrilled the court recognized it was wrong for the Fish and Wildlife Service to ignore the significance of the likely future loss of several subpopulations in denying protection to these birds,” senior scientist Ileene Anderson with the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. “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.”
U.S. District Judge Joseph C. Spero hinted last month that he would find in favor of the environmentalists.
“My problem is you reached a conclusion that the species was threatened. You changed that conclusion to say it’s not threatened,” he told attorneys representing the federal government at a hearing last month.
For more than a decade, environmental groups have been petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the bi-state sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird that has a distinctive and elaborate mating dance in which the males puff out their chests. The bi-state variant of the species lives along the Mono Basin, a border region between eastern California and western Nevada.
The bird has become an emblem in a land-use fight between environmental groups and President Donald Trump’s administration, which has rolled back policies aiming to protect its habitat in favor of oil and gas development on public land. Earlier this month, environmental groups filed additional federal lawsuits in Montana and Idaho seeking to block the federal Bureau of Land Management from selling oil and gas leases throughout the greater sage-grouse habitat.
In 2013, the bi-state sage grouse was well on its way to a protected habitat of 1.8 million acres when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suddenly reversed course on the proposed listing in 2015, based at least in part on a population trend analysis by Dr. Peter Coates with the U.S. Geological Survey. The study concluded sage-grouse populations had stabilized over a ten-year period.
In 2016, a group comprising the Center for Biological Diversity; Wildearth Guardians; Western Watersheds Project and Desert Survivors filed the present lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its “irrational” reversal.
The environmentalists took issue with the fact that Coates’ study predicted positive population growth for one of the populations of sage-grouse when it had zero males in 2013 and only one in 2014. It also could not evaluate two other populations due to data limitations.
The Service’s decision also stemmed from a “Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions,” that determined that more than $45 million pledged for future conservation efforts by various government agencies warranted withdrawing the sage grouse from consideration for the endangered species list.
Spero said while the Service did not violate the Endangered Species Act when it took these commitments into account, it was arbitrary and capricious to find that these conservation efforts would be sufficiently effective.
A successful conservation track record isn’t required, Spero noted, but there must at least be evidence that past conservation efforts have achieved some measure of success to show “sufficient certainty of effectiveness.”
“There is no doubt that a great deal of effort has been devoted to assessing threats and determining what measures are necessary to ameliorate these threats,” Spero wrote in his 85-page opinion. “What is missing from the PECE analysis, however, is any evidence that establishes the likely impact of the planned conservation measures and whether they will actually improve the status of the Bi-State DPS [Distinct Population Segment] enough to justify withdrawal of the Proposed Listing.”
Spero found the Service should not have concluded that the bi-state sage grouse population was stable based on the Coates study. Coupled with the PECE analysis, the Service wrongly denied the sage-grouse Endangered Species Act protection, he said.
“Consequently, the court concludes that both errors go to the heart of the agency’s action and are not harmless,” he wrote.
Erik Molvar, executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement that Spero’s ruling “clearly recognized the huge disparity between the severity of the threats facing this beleaguered bird population and the random acts of conservation adopted by state and local governments.”
He added, “The sage grouse of the Mono Basin area face a variety of serious problems — from heavy livestock grazing to cheatgrass invasion to mining and energy development — and they need protections that are ironclad and science-based.”