Struggle for Sage Grouse Renewed

     BOISE (CN) – The sage grouse’s legal saga continues as environmentalists fight to keep the regal bird from falling into a “black hole” of being “warranted but precluded” from listing as an endangered species. The Western Watersheds Project warns that allowing the sage grouse to linger on the candidate species list could have dire consequences. Even if a 50 listings-per-year goal is attained, it could take up to 48 years for all species already on the waiting list to be listed, and 34 species waiting on the list have become extinct since 1980.

     Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands in sagebrush habitat across the West, the sage grouse has declined due to habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, invasive weeds and fire.
     Environmentalists first petitioned for an endangered listing in 2003, to which the Fish and Wildlife Service responded in 2005 that a listing under the Endangered Species Act was not warranted.
     The Western Watersheds Project challenged this, leading to a 2007 ruling that the FWS used a flawed process and inadequate science to come to its decision.
     That ruling also cited political interference from Bush administration officials as a factor that inappropriately affected the 2005 decision.
     The sage grouse was among several species cited in a Department of Interior Inspector General report indicating that Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald exerted improper influence preventing the listing of several high-profile species.
     The 2007 Idaho Federal Court ruling remanded the case to the FWS, which sought to wait until publication of a study by leading sage grouse experts.
     In March this year, the service issued a “warranted but precluded” decision, meaning the bird deserved endangered species status, but had to go on a waiting list due to alleged budgetary restrictions and higher-priority species.
     The Western Watersheds Project sued again, challenging the “precluded” portion of the decision.
     The Idaho-based Watersheds Project says that budgetary excuses are not a proper factor, particularly as the budget increased this fiscal year. In addition, most listing costs already have been expended in preparation for the 2010 decision. Other listing rules have cost between $11,000 and $305,000, according to the complaint.
     The environmental group claims that though the “warranted” portion of the decision appears to be “not tainted by political interference – a welcome sign of progress,” the “precluded” portion lacks such rigor and rational discussion.
     Represented by Laird Lucas, the group asks the court to make the Fish and Wildlife Service promptly propose a new listing rule.
     Male sage grouse raise a fan of pointed brown feathers on their tail and inflate sacs on their neck during courtship.

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