(CN) — The Trump administration continued its pattern of rolling back or declining to pursue protections for the greater sage grouse, the iconic bird which has seen its population numbers dwindle across a broad swath of rangeland in the American West.
Though it had proposed a rule to list a distinct population of the greater sage grouse that lives along the California-Nevada border under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew the proposal Monday, finding the protection measures put into place by the federal and state governments have largely been successful.
“We found that the best scientific and commercial data available indicated that the threats to the DPS and its habitat … were reduced to the point that the DPS did not meet the Act’s definition of an “endangered species” or of a “threatened species,” the agency wrote in a 180-page withdrawal notice.
DPS stands for “distinct population segment,” meaning that the agency is considering the population of sage grouse in proximity to the California-Nevada border as separate and isolated from the rest of the population.
Conservationists called the withdrawal inconsistent with the facts on the ground, asserting the sage grouse population numbers in the area remain in decline.
“Voluntary conservation projects over the past decade have been ineffective at turning around population declines and fail to address the key threats facing this isolated population,” said Laura Cunningham, California director of Western Watersheds Project. “These birds clearly need stronger legal protections.”
The sage grouse has long been the flashpoint of contention between conservationists and industry groups in the American West, as the former claim housing development, mining, oil and gas extraction and grazing in the bird’s native habitat have caused its population to significantly decrease.
Meanwhile, industry groups say the effort to enact habitat protections for a bird with a historical habitat range that extends millions of acres throughout 16 American states and three Canadian provinces would pose an existential threat to all industry that relies on land in the American West.
The stakes being so high, the battle over protections for the rangeland bird have been extremely pitched.
The fight over the distinct population in the sagebrush range along the California-Nevada border has a long history too, both in and out of court.
In October 2013, Fish and Wildlife agreed to list the distinct population as threatened, while declaring sagebrush critical habitat. Then in 2015, the agency withdrew the decision, citing science that characterized the threats as no longer significant.
Four conservation groups sued the agency in 2016, saying the withdrawal was not based on the best available science. Last year, a federal court judge ruled in favor of the conservationists and ordered the agency to reconsider withdrawal.
In announcing its latest withdrawal Monday, the agency cited the work of three scientists as support for the theory that conservation measures in place for the last decade are working.
But the Center for Biological Diversity said the conclusion flies in the face of common sense, noting the scientists cited in the decision note that only about 3,000 of the birds remain.
“Failure to protect bi-state sage grouse is pushing them closer to population collapse,” said Ileene Anderson, with the center. “Voluntary agreements won’t save them from extinction.”
Scientists estimate only 200,000 to 500,000 greater sage grouse, which once roamed the western sagebrush landscape by the millions, remain.
The bird uses sagebrush-grassland or juniper-sagebrush-grassland, which proliferates at lower elevations throughout roughly 300 million acres of the American West, as a vital feeding ground. Scientists say residential development, natural resource extraction and cattle grazing in the bird’s natural habitat have led to its precipitous population decline in recent decades.
Although environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to list the bird as endangered, advocates for the economic interests dependent on the land said such a listing would cripple several industries – much like the listing of the northern spotted owl as endangered hobbled the timber industry in the West.
Obama-era Interior Secretary Sally Jewell led a five-year effort culminating in a compromise seeking to provide sage grouse protections while stopping short of listing it as endangered – a deal all affected states and interested parties signed off on.
Within weeks of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, however, his administration said it would revisit the deal.
Initially, the Trump administration’s desire to revisit the compromise provoked skepticism from most of the governors of the affected states, who balked at undoing a fragile agreement that required years of effort.
But the recent land-use amendments were generally well received, with Democratic governors from Oregon and Colorado endorsing the newly minted plans along with Republican governors from Utah, Nevada and Wyoming.