SAN FRANCISCO― A federal court has ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service illegally withdrew its proposal to list the bi-state sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley on Monday vacated the agency’s 2020 withdrawal of the bird from the proposed listing, reinstated the 2013 proposal to list the birds as threatened and ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a new final listing decision.
“These rare dancing birds have a shot at survival thanks to this court decision,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ve watched for more than a decade as these sage grouse have continued to decline. Without the Endangered Species Act’s legal protection, multiple threats will just keep pushing these grouse toward extinction.”
The bi-state sage grouse is a geographically isolated, genetically distinct population of greater sage grouse, which are famous for their showy plumage and mating dances, during which the males make popping sounds with large, inflated air sacs. They live only in an area along the California-Nevada border and face multiple threats. Population declines are particularly acute at the northern and southern ends of the birds’ range.
The court found that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2020 decision to withdraw the bird’s proposed listing failed to consider the small overall population of the bi-state sage grouse and the significance of the potential loss of subpopulations most at risk of being wiped out.
“These unique sage grouse populations in the Eastern Sierra are heading toward extinction from numerous threats, including livestock grazing, cheatgrass invasions, raven predation and extreme droughts,” said Laura Cunningham, California director at Western Watersheds Project. “They deserve a chance to thrive with legal protection.”
The birds were originally proposed for listing as threatened in 2013, but the Fish and Wildlife Service abandoned the proposal in 2015. In 2018 a federal court found the Service had wrongly denied Endangered Species Act protection to the bi-state sage grouse and required the agency to re-evaluate the bird’s situation. The bird was again proposed for protection, but in March 2020 the Trump administration withdrew the proposal.
“The court’s decision is a win for the bi-state sage grouse, which deserve Endangered Species Act protections,” said Joe Bushyhead, endangered species attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “The Fish and Wildlife Service must address the threats to these birds and their habitat, as well as the failure of existing efforts to halt their decline.”
Sage grouse populations in California and Nevada are isolated from other sage grouse by unsuitable habitats and former habitat that has been heavily developed. The bi-state sage grouse populations together are estimated to be no more than 3,305 birds, far below the 5,000-bird threshold that scientists consider the minimum viable population.
“The decision reinforces important legal principles for endangered species: that agencies must base their decisions on the best available science, fully explain their decisions, and carefully consider the status of an imperiled species, especially segments that are small and vulnerable,” said Daniel Ahrens, a law student with the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, which represented the conservation groups in court.
Stanford law student Zach Rego, who also represented the conservation groups, said the court was right to hold that the Service “must do more to show that conservation measures, like the removal of invasive cheatgrass, will be effective in preventing the bi-state sage grouse’s extinction.”
Efforts to protect the birds, including placing markers on barbed-wire fencing in cattle and sheep operations to reduce collision deaths and vegetation treatments, have failed to stem their decline. Federal scientists predict localized extinctions in the north and south ends of the range. Scientists also estimate occupied habitat has decreased by more than 136,000 acres over the past 11 years.
Bi-state sage grouse are found on lands originally inhabited by the Washoe and Paiute peoples.
The conservation groups that successfully challenged the withdrawal include Desert Survivors, the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians. The groups are represented by attorneys from the Center and the Stanford Law Clinic.