Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Sagebrush Dancers May Get Listing, Habitat

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed threatened status under the Endangered Species Act for a genetically distinct population of greater sage-grouse in California and Nevada. The USFWS included a special rule in the proposal, and also proposed 1.89 million acres of critical habitat for the birds in a separate action.

The proposals are part of the agency's court-approved five-year workplan, the result of a 2011 settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The workplan is to speed listing decisions for 757 species across the country.

"Because the bi-state sage-grouse exists at the periphery of the species' range and is genetically unique, it contains characteristics that could be critically important to the survival of the greater sage-grouse as a whole, particularly in light of climate change," the CBD's Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist, was quoted as saying in the group's response to the proposal.

An iconic figure of the American West, the two-foot tall greater sage-grouse is a long-lived ground-dwelling bird. The males have spiky tail feathers and large white ruffs, with air sacs on their chests. In the spring, the birds gather in open staging areas called leks in an elaborate courtship ritual in which the males dance and strut while fanning their tail feathers and inflating the air sacs with a rhythmic sound that can be heard up to a mile away.

The Bi-State Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of the greater sage-grouse in the Mono Basin has lost more than 50 percent of its historic range, and each of its individual populations are small and below the theoretical minimum for long-term persistence, according to the proposal.

The birds face multiple threats that severely impact the four small populations on the periphery of the DPS' region. The two central populations are the largest and strongest, but the USFWS predicts that even these two will fall below 500 breeding pairs within the next 30 years.

The sagebrush habitat is being overtaken by the invasion of non-native species, such as cheatgrass and medusahead rye. Woodland succession by native species such as pinyon pine and junipers can also drive out the grouse due to their need for flat open space.

Invasive non-natives and woodland encroachment also change the historic wildfire patterns, leading to further habitat loss and fragmentation.

Human-initiated landscape changes such as roads, power lines and fences fragment habitat areas and cause mortality due to collisions, the action noted.

Grazing can both hurt and help the birds. Large grazers can damage nesting areas, and fencing chops up the large open spaces the birds require, but maintaining rangeland prevents the conversion of the land into subdivisions.

The USFWS has included a proposed special rule in the listing action to allow take, or harm, to the birds in connection with livestock operations and for on-going conservation programs such as the Bi-State Action Plan and the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Sage-Grouse Initiative. A section of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) allows special rules for take for species with a threatened status.

"We applaud the combined efforts of our federal, state and local partners, as well as private landowners across the species' range, to address the significant challenges faced by the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse. These efforts are essential to the recovery of the species. [The] proposal...should not deter us from continuing our work on behalf of the Bi-State DPS and its important sage brush habitat," Ren Lohoefener, Regional Director of the Service's Pacific Southwest Region was quoted as saying in the agency's press release.

Comments on both proposals are due Dec 27.

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