Grouse Listing Proposal Pulled, Greens Cry Fowl

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The proposal to list the Mono Basin sage-grouse as a threatened species has been withdrawn due to a successful conservation action plan, the listing agency claims. Conservationists strongly disagree, proclaiming the plan is unproven and inadequate to protect the birds, according to a Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) statement released in reaction to Thursday’s listing withdrawal.
     The controversy centers on a small, isolated, genetically distinct population segment of greater sage-grouse in the high-desert sagebrush habitat of the Mono Basin area straddling the California/Nevada border. One of America’s most iconic birds, they are known for their showy mating dances and booming calls.
     The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that its decision to withdraw the proposal to list the population under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was due to the development, over the past 15 years, of the Bi-State Action Plan with partners in California and Nevada, that is secured with $45 million in funding, in addition to “nearly $30 million worth of conservation work USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and other partners have already completed to implement this plan,” according to the Service’s press release.
     “Thanks in large part to the extraordinary efforts of all the partners in the working group to address threats to greater sage-grouse and its habitat in the Bi-State area, our biologists have determined that this population no longer needs ESA protection,” Department of Interior Secretary Jewell was quoted as saying in the announcement. “What’s more, the collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and California are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development.”
     In the CBD’s reaction statement, Michael Connor, California director of the Western Watersheds Project, countered this assertion by pointing out that Fish and Wildlife had assigned the maximum priority for listing to the birds as recently as December 2014 due to the magnitude of threats they faced. “The Service’s backpedalling in claiming that unfinished management plans and voluntary, cooperative agreements will protect the species is untrue, and smacks of political expediency,” he said.
     The bi-state population was proposed for listing as a threatened species in October 2013 due to significant population declines caused by urbanization of their habitat and encroachment of conifers and invasive grasses, coupled with the population’s isolation and small size. Since that time, the Bi-State Action Plan’s working group has finalized plans for nearly 80 projects designed to reduce the threats, according to Fish and Wildlife’s statement.
     Those measures are inadequate, according to the CBD. The plan does not “limit overall disturbance density to under three percent of habitat,” and does not protect nests with adequate grass cover to hide eggs from predators. The plan calls for the use of livestock to reduce flammable and invasive cheat grass, which has not been proven to be effective, the group said, and there are no restrictions on geothermal leases or mining, they added.
     “Many of the most serious threats to the Mono Basin sage grouse remain unaddressed, and its tiny and isolated populations are under imminent threat of extinction,” Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, was quoted as saying in the CBD response. “Today’s decision does nothing to resolve the problems facing this special population, it just punts the issue to the courts.”
     While the conservation groups maintain that the planning efforts on public lands are unfinished, and the conservation agreements with state and local communities are unproven, action plan partners and Fish and Wildlife have “confidence” that the plan and funding commitments are “are highly likely to be implemented,” according to the agency’s statement.
     “Together, we’ve worked with ranchers, conservation groups, local governments in Nevada and California to take proactive steps to restore and enhance sage-grouse habitat while also helping them improve their ranching operations,” USDA Under Secretary Robert Bonnie was quoted as saying in the announcement. “The decision to not list the bi-state sage-grouse proves this work has paid off.”
     The CBD and allies strongly disagree with the action plan partners’ predictions of success. “These birds are in serious trouble, and yet the government is doing nothing to restrict destructive hardrock mining, geothermal development or off-road vehicle races,” CBD’s public lands director Randi Spivak said. “Half measures may delay extinction, but they won’t prevent it.”

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