In a decision that could reverberate across the West, the Obama administration announced Tuesday that it will not designate a small population of greater sage grouse in Nevada and California as threatened or endangered.
The decision that an isolated group of the wild, chickenlike birds does not warrant federal protection under the Endangered Species Act likely foreshadows the administration’s much-anticipated decision this fall on whether to protect hundreds of thousands of the birds in a vast range that covers 11 Western states.
Less than two years ago, Interior Department officials proposed to list up to 9,000 sage grouse in the two states as threatened “because of significant population declines.”
The growth of invasive trees allowed birds of prey to perch and attack the grouse and its chicks. Nonnative wild grasses fueled wildfires that burned away sagebrush, the bird’s food source. And human encroachment fragmented the grouse’s 1.8-million-acre habitat.
Those threats are remarkably similar to challenges faced on a broader scale by up to a half-million greater sage grouse in states throughout the West, including Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Montana and Arizona.
In addition, the habitat of the larger group has been disturbed by mineral extraction and wind energy development. Widespread cattle grazing has lowered the greater sage grouse’s grass cover, further exposing the birds and their chicks to predators. A decision on whether the wide-ranging grassland bird warrants protection throughout its range is expected by the end of September.
Western governors, ranchers and some federal officials who work with them oppose listing the sage grouse because it would severely limit energy exploration and cattle grazing over an enormous swath of public and private land.
Greater sage grouse is considered to be an indicator species by biologists, meaning that the health of the population indicates whether sagebrush that dominates the Western desert landscape is well managed. Sagebrush serves as a nursery to golden eagles and supports species that spur eco-tourism in states where it flourishes. Tourists come to gawk at elk, pronghorns, antelopes and mule deer — and also shoot them in organized hunts on public and private land.
The greater sage grouse is one of a few North American birds where the males dance and show off to attract a mate. Never mind that most males never actually attract a mate, and that many wind up tangled in vicious fights over turf in flat, grassy plains called leks that serve as a kind of stage.
Losing the greater sage grouse to extinction would not only wipe out a bird that has survived for millions of years, it would also wipe away a meaningful part of the nation’s history. Greater sage grouse is a distinctly American species that helped feed the nation’s westward expansion, even though it tastes awful. Sage grouse not only use sagebush for nesting and hiding, but they also eat its bitter and slightly toxic leaves.
The remaining sage grouse are thought to represent less than 5 percent of their historic population. Once the birds “blackened the sky” when they took flight over the Western sagebrush, conservationists said. Now the greater sage grouse is often compared to the passenger pigeon, which went extinct early in the last century after reigning as the world’s most populous bird.
In her announcement Tuesday in Reno, Nev., Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the department reconsidered its proposal to list the birds because a coalition of government and private partners such as ranchers worked hard to end those threats, removing trees, planting native grasses to compete with invasive ones and negotiating conservation easements that prohibit subdivisions and other development on ranchland. A similar coalition is working to do the same in the wider habitat.
Jewell was flanked by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird and others who oppose placing sage grouse on the endangered species list. Through the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, the federal government controls about 90 percent of land in the eight Nevada and California counties that serve as habitat for sage grouse.
“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 [Endangered Species Act] protection,” Jewell said.
That view is a blow to the hopes of groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a petition to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered across the West because of its plummeting population.
Randi Spivak, public lands director for the nonprofit conservation group, said the Obama administration lacked the political will to list greater sage grouse in the two states and will probably not extend a listing to the larger population in September.
“If you read everything they’re saying, I think they’ll find it very hard to make the listing decision,” she said.
A threatened designation under the Endangered Species Act means an animal could face extinction in the distant future. An endangered designation means an animal is currently on a slippery slope to extinction.
The Center for Biological Diversity is concerned about natural gas drilling operations and hard rock mining for metals such as gold, as well as widespread urban development on sage grouse territory.
“Do we place importance on protecting our wildlife, or is the administration going to bend to development, energy and extraction?” Spivak said.
The development of a “Bi-State Action Plan” that started 15 years ago to alleviate threats to sage grouse greatly accelerated its funding and efforts since Interior’s listing proposal. That plan “was a key factor in the decision not to list the bird,” the agency said in a statement.
Jewell said that “the collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and California are proof” that sagebrush habitat can be conserved in the entire West “while we encourage sustainable economic development.”
Spivak took issue with that point of view. “The science is pretty clear that livestock can have a negative effect on sage grouse. They eat grass and plants that would provide cover for sage grouse, their chicks and eggs,” she said.
“Scientists have taken a look at how high the grass should be and it’s seven inches . . . enough to cover the bird. If you don’t have enough nesting cover for the eggs, you don’t have enough for hatchlings while they’re nesting. That’s a half measure.”
Thad Heater, a Nevada state biologist, disagreed. When the Bi-State Local Area Working Group, which developed the action plan, analyzed the sagebrush ecosystem, “grazing was a lower level factor,” he said.
They placed an emphasis on “addressing these encroaching trees,” pinyon and juniper, that expanded into sagebrush over nearly two centuries, providing a platform for sage grouse predators.
“If you’re on a perch site and you’re looking down, you can see better, even through the grass,” Heater said. “When you can get up on a tree at 8 feet, 10 feet or 15 feet, you can look into the canopy rather than looking across it.”