On Thursday, Oct. 31, Steven Abel of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) presented the Mono County Collaborative Planning Team with an update on the recent USFWS proposal to list the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment of the greater sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The USFWS published its proposal on Friday, Oct. 25.
The current range of the Bi-State sage grouse is limited to about 5,000 birds in six population management units along the California and Nevada border. The units represent less than 50 percent of the birds’ historical range, according to the USFWS proposal press release. The release goes on to state that, “Scientists predict that four of the six population management units could be lost in the foreseeable future.”
The Center for Biological Diversity originally petitioned to protect the Bi-State sage grouse as an endangered species in 2005. The USFWS placed the sage grouse on the candidate list for endangered species listing in 2010; however, its actual listing “was precluded by higher priorities,” Abel said. The Center for Biological Diversity challenged the USFWS, resulting in a settlement agreement that required the USFWS to expedite its decision regarding the listing of the Bi-State sage grouse to 2013.
In addition to its proposal to list the species as threatened, the USFWS also proposed designating about 1.86 million acres of critical habitat for the Bi-State Sage Grouse. The designation would encompass federal, state, tribal, and private lands on four separate units in Carson City, Douglas, Lyon, Mineral and Esmeralda counties in Nevada, and in Alpine, Mono, and Inyo counties in California.
The two core Bi-State sage grouse populations in Mono County reside in Bodie Hills and the Long Valley Caldera.
The primary threats to Bi-State sage grouse identified by the USFWS include the fragmentation of habitat caused by urbanization, roads, and transmission lines, the degradation of habitat by livestock and horse grazing, invasive noxious weeds, and motorized recreation, and loss of sagebrush habitat to encroaching junipers and pinyon. The primary challenge working against the birds is the isolation of their populations, Abel added. “We’re challenged by the degree of fragmentation,” he said. One of the aims of the listing and critical habitat designation would be to “facilitate connectivity between populations,” he said.
According to the USFWS press release regarding the proposals, the critical habitat designation “will not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, and has no impact on private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits.” Abel made a point of noting that the USFWS has no desire to disrupt livestock and ranching operations in the proposed area; “We would much rather have large, intact landscapes that are currently livestock operations,” he said. “The grouse would rather have that, than broken up, fragmented habitat.”
However, Mammoth Lake’s U.S. Forest Service (USFS) District Ranger Jon Regelbrugge expressed his concern that the critical habitat designation will still affect federal allotments for grazing. He argued that because it would be impossible to prove that these grazing allotments have no impact on sage grouse populations in the area, the USFS would have to consult with the USFWS as to how to manage the land.
A threatened species listing would also mean an end to Bi-State sage grouse hunting, which is legal in both California and Nevada.
“We’re very concerned about the economic impacts of not only this designation, but also the [USFWS critical habitat designation for the] Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs and Yosemite Toads designation,” said Mono County Community Development Director Scott Burns. “It doesn’t seem we can go forward until we know whether or not there will be economic impacts.” According to preliminary maps of the Bi-State sage grouse designation, he said, “the majority of the County is impacted. We’re concerned when you add the fish and toads to that.”
Abel admitted that the Bi-State sage grouse critical habitat map could use some refinement. “I anticipate that the map will be refined, going forward,” he said. He explained that the map is the combination of three prior mapping efforts; one of habitat preferences of the sage grouse, another of vegetation layers, and the last a map generated from a woodland treatment project that was part of the Bi-State Action Plan created in 2012 with oversight from the USFWS, USFS, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nevada Department of Wildlife, California Department of Fish and Game, US Geological Survey. The Bi-State Action Plan is the result of collaborative efforts the Bi-State Local Area Working Group under the guidance of the Nevada Governor’s Sage Grouse Conservation Team.
One of the primary aims of the Sage Grouse Conservation Team was to avoid any listing of the Bi-State sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. According to the Nevada Department of Wildlife website, “The listing of sage grouse as an endangered species in Nevada would have significant impacts on the State. Sage grouse are found in 15 of Nevada’s 17 counties, and land use, economics, water use and recreational activities may be adversely affected.”
The site continues, “Conservation plans and agreements are elements that the [USFWS] must consider when considering listing a species for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Conservation planning and agreements … may preclude the need for listing a species.”
Scott Burns said that the Mono County Board of Supervisors would request an extension to the 60-day public comment period for the proposals, which began on Monday, Oct. 28. “We’re not prepared to respond [to the proposals] in any way,” he said. He added that the comment period would also run through the Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas holidays, further reducing the amount of time County staff has to formulate a response.
Such an extension to the comment period “Certainly could occur,” Steven Abel said.
“This is an ongoing conversation that isn’t ending today, obviously,” concluded Mono County Supervisor Byng Hunt.
The USFWS will conduct an informational public meeting regarding the Bi-State sage grouse proposals at the Tri-County Fairgrounds Home Economics Building in Bishop on Nov. 5 from 4 to 6 p.m.