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Bi-state sage grouse destined for threatened species list

The announced listing of the bi-state sage grouse last week as threatened under the Endangered Species Act could foretell the possible listing of the greater sage grouse next year, which would impact a number of western states, including Nevada.

The bi-state sage grouse is a distinct population with a habitat from just south of Carson City in the Pine Nut Range down to the White Mountains straddling the California-Nevada state line in Esmeralda County.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement that read, “today’s listing of the bi-state sage grouse as a threatened species will have major ramifications on the way of life in parts of Nevada and California.”

“This listing is further proof that we need to work together to protect sensitive species before they get to such a dismal point and negatively affect our rural economies. The decisions whether or not to list the greater sage grouse population as endangered will also occur within the next two years and only through cooperation can we protect this species,” Reid said.

Nye County Commissioner Lorinda Wichman said the bi-state population only affects counties to the north and west, like Mineral and Douglas County. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by next year is expected to make a determination on the greater sage grouse, which has a habitat range roughly from Tonopah north.

“The tact that they took forward, the fish and wildlife service, to put that through is pretty much going to be the path for the greater sage grouse,” Wichman said. “This is the first time ever that a listing was dictated by a judge.”

Wichman said that listing is important; she can’t imagine the fish and wildlife service would change the process of listing the greater sage grouse.

“There was a lot of effort put into avoiding that listing by people in California and other groups that were trying to find a workable solution to avoid the listing. In Nevada we’ve got the governor’s task force and other groups working in tandem to avoid the listing of the sage grouse but it doesn’t seem like anyone on the East Coast is listening to us at all. I would love to be optimistic on this one but I’m not,” Wichman said.

Originally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the sage grouse wasn’t eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act. That was challenged by environmental groups. A further review by the agency determined the species was warranted for protection under the act, but precluded from listing it because of other priorities for other species that face more immediate and severe extinction threats.

Doug Busselman, executive vice-president of the Nevada Farm Bureau, who sits on the governor’s sage grouse task force, said a U.S. district court judge’s ruling on the bi-state sage grouse was too nebulous. He said the bi-state sage grouse ruling came first because it involved fewer birds than the greater sage grouse, which inhabits 11 states.

The bi-state sage grouse is a distinct population that became separated from the greater sage grouse, which was determined to have unique genetic characteristics, Busselman said. The bi-state population was listed even though it actually had increases in population on the California side while numbers have been steady on the Nevada side, he said.

“It’s not a case of being decided as threatened on the grounds we’re down to our last bird. It’s probably more based off there being a smaller universe to work with and the concerns over restrictions of habitat that are more caused by pinyon and juniper invasion than by anything else,” Busselman said.

The listing of the sage grouse would impact anyone who wants to use federally managed lands within their habitat, including grazing. Already the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has restricted areas put up for oil leases that could be sage grouse habitat.

The greater sage grouse is a ground-dwelling bird, up to 30 inches long and two feet tall, weighing from two to seven pounds. Females are a mottled brown color, black and white, while males are larger with a large white ring around their neck and bright yellow air sacs on their breasts that they inflate during mating. They are found at elevations from 4,000 to over 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food.

When asked if this decision meant a greater likelihood the greater sage grouse would make the list next year, Busselman said, “it’s hard to read the tea leaves on that one.”

“If you’re going to use the characteristics of what went into the decision here, there is ample reason to worry about what’s going to happen everywhere else,” Busselman said.

But he added the extensive work of the governor’s sage grouse task force since it was formed in 2002 has led to a proposed recovery program that could stave off some of the biggest impacts to public land users.

“A lot of the things we have been working on over the last 10 years to provide habitat and to provide conservation measures for protection are probably going to be incorporated into the land use type of activities,” Busselman said. “If you want to look at the glass being half full, there’s reasons for that being the case as well.”

“We put in meaningful solutions that don’t bring about the end of the world,” Busselman said.

The Nevada conservation plan, put together by the sage grouse task force and a sage grouse ecosystem team is making some progress working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. But he added, “when you’re dealing with fish and wildlife, it’s very challenging to figure out how high is up. Once they have 100 percent of what you got to give, they tend to say, is that all you got?”

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