RENO, Nev. (AP) — Citing the government’s repeated reversals and refusals to protect a cousin of the greater sage grouse the last two decades, conservationists are suing again to try to force the federal listing of the bi-state sage grouse along the California-Nevada line.
The Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco last week against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It’s the latest move in a legal and regulatory battle that dates to the first petition to list the bird in 2001 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
“The service is utterly failing in its duty to preserve and protect sage grouse,” said Laura Cunningham, California director of the Western Watersheds Project.
“Without the legal protection of the Endangered Species Act, multiple threats will push these beautiful grouse to extinction,” said Lisa Belenky, a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The hen-sized bird is similar to but separate from the greater sage grouse, which lives in a dozen Western states and is at the center of a dispute over the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back protections adopted under President Barack Obama. Threats to the survival of both include urbanization, livestock grazing and wildfires.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the bi-state grouse population is half what it was 150 years ago along the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada. Fewer than 3,500 are believed to remain across 7,000 square miles (18,129 square kilometers) of mostly high desert sagebrush stretching from Carson City to Yosemite National Park.
Service officials are reviewing the lawsuit but had no immediate comment, the agency said.
Recent efforts to protect the birds have included the installation of flagging on barbed-wire fencing and vegetation-removal projects, but have failed to stem their decline, the lawsuit said. Scientists estimate occupied habitat has decreased by more than 200 square miles (518 square km) over the past 11 years.
“The surviving bi-state sage grouse subpopulations are tiny, isolated and face imminent threats. There is no credible excuse for denying them the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said Taylor Jones, an endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected listing petitions in 2001 and 2005. Facing a series of lawsuits, it formally proposed threatened status for the first time in 2013 — along with the designation of nearly 3,000 square miles (7,769 square km) of critical habitat to be protected — but abandoned that proposal two years later.
The conservation groups sued again in 2016. A federal judge ruled in their favor in 2018 and ordered the agency to again re-evaluate the bird’s status. The judge said the service’s reliance on new population modeling contradicted its own admission that the results had to be interpreted “with caution.”
In April of 2019, the service announced the court-required reinstatement of the 2013 proposed listing rule before formally withdrawing the proposal in March.
The agency said its latest review indicated the bird’s status has improved, thanks in large part to voluntary protection measures adopted by state agencies, local ranchers and other interested third parties.
The new lawsuit says that decision was made “in the face of overwhelming evidence of the dire condition” of the species.
It says the acreage of habitat that was treated to improve conditions for grouse — or kept the same through the application of conservation easements that limit future habitat destruction — affected only 6% of the 2,921 square miles (7,565 square km) USFWS proposed to designate as critical habitat in 2013.