RENO, Nev. – Conservationists are headed back to court to try to force the Trump administration to protect a rare game bird along the California-Nevada border as the government keeps changing its mind about whether to list the cousin of the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered.
Three groups have filed formal notice of their intent to sue after the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed course in March and abandoned its 2018 proposal to list the bi-state grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
The hen-sized bird is similar but separate from the greater sage grouse, which lives in a dozen Western states and is at the center of a dispute over the government’s efforts to roll back protections adopted under President Barack Obama.
The service estimates the bi-state grouse population is half what it was 150 years ago along the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada. Anywhere from 330 to 3,305 are believed to remain across 7,000 square miles (18,129 square kilometers) of high desert sagebrush stretching from Carson City to Yosemite National Park.
Threats to the bird include urbanization, livestock grazing and wildfires.
The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected listing petitions in 2001 and 2005. It formally proposed threatened status for the first time in 2013 but abandoned that proposal two years later.
In 2018, a U.S. judge in San Francisco found the agency had illegally denied protection to the bi-state grouse and ordered it to re-evaluate the bird’s status.
The bird was again proposed for protection, but in March the administration withdrew that proposal. The service said its latest review indicates the population has improved, thanks in large part to voluntary protection measures adopted by state agencies, local ranchers and other interested third parties.
Conservationists say voluntary efforts fall short of what’s necessary to comply with the law.
“We’ve watched for more than a decade as voluntary measures failed to do enough to help these birds survive,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the notice of intent to sue last week with WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project.
“Without the legal protection of the Endangered Species Act, multiple threats will just keep pushing these unique grouse toward extinction,” she said.
The Eastern Sierra Land Trust based in Bishop, California, is among those that disagree.
The coalition of ranchers, private landowners, tribal land managers and others has been active in local partnerships working to improve grouse habitat. It said the service’s March decision was a testament to their success.
“In the case of the bi-state sage-grouse, our uniquely local and collaborative approach is working without the need for the Endangered Species Act,” the trust said.
The federal agency said in March it still believes the population is distinct from the greater sage grouse — living in six population subgroups on the southwest edge of the overall species. But it no longer believes there’s any immediate threat to the survival of the subgroups.
"The best scientific and commercial data available indicated the threats … are reduced to the point that the (distinct population segment) does not meet the act’s definition of an ‘endangered species’ or of a ‘threatened species.’" the agency said.
But the conservationists say the dwindling number left is far below the 5,000-bird threshold scientists consider the minimum viable population.