At its regular meeting in Bridgeport on Tuesday, the Mono County Board of Supervisors held a workshop regarding the proposed designation of critical habitat in Mono County and the listing of the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment of the Greater Sage-Grouse (Sage Grouse) as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The bottom line: the Board sought a 90-day extension to the public comment period for this proposed action by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), much as it had requested an extension to the comment period for action regarding the Yosemite Toad and the Mountain Yellow Legged Frog earlier this year. Currently the comment period for the Sage Grouse is set to close on Dec. 27.
Ted Koch, USFWS Nevada State Supervisor attended the workshop, as did USFWS Wildlife Biologist Steve Abele.
According to the County staff report, “The USFWS proposes to designate 1,868,017 acres of critical habitat within the Carson City, Lyon, Douglas, Mineral and Esmeralda counties in Nevada, and Alpine, Inyo and Mono in California.”
Mono County analyst Brent Calloway prepared a map, which illustrated that over 82% of private property in unincorporated Mono County is within the proposed critical habitat area. According to the supervisors, private property makes up 6% of Mono County, so 82% of that 6% would be affected.
A second map (pictured on page 8) illustrates the cumulative coverage of proposed critical habitat of sage grouse, yellow-legged frog and Yosemite toad. These maps graphically summarize why the proposed action is of critical importance to Mono County.
“The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to preserve ecosystems upon which species depend,” Koch said at the beginning of the workshop. “In order to conserve ecosystems, some short-term sacrifices are required.”
Two of the biggest concerns voiced thus far regarding the habitat areas proposed for preservation for the Sage Grouse are ATV use and livestock grazing.
Even though Koch said that the more conversations the County and USFWS could have on the subject, the better, he also stated that the USFWS was under court order deadlines for the Sage Grouse decision due to a lawsuit.
“I would love to give you more time [for the comment period] but our deadlines don’t move,” Koch said. He did, however, add that the USFWS was internally discussing the extension at this time. He asked that if an extension were granted, the Board promise him that it wouldn’t wait until the last two or three days to submit comments.
The private property issue concerned that Board greatly. As Supervisor Tim Fesko stated, “Property tax is what this County leans on, and we need to be able to expand otherwise we’ll be in worse shape than we have been. Release the 6% [of private land] and you’ll make a lot of people happy.”
Koch, however, said that some of the 6% of the private lands were some of the most important pieces of habitat.
Supervisors Larry Johnston then questioned several of the USFWS listed “threats” for the Sage Grouse and how they actually related to Mono County.
“Infrastructure and mining are listed as primary threats but infrastructure is roads, which haven’t changed much, and mining isn’t occurring,” Johnston said. “Threats you provided don’t make a lot of sense for Mono County.”
Urbanization is also listed as a threat to the Sage Grouse, but Johnston pointed out that Mono County doesn’t have large-scale urbanization issues.
“All it can take is one house to wipe out a leks [a congregation of Sage Grouse],” Koch argued. “A small footprint can have a big effect.”
Johnston then asked Koch one of two questions that would stump him that afternoon.
“What is your target number of birds to get back to?”
“That is an unbelievably difficult question to answer,” Koch said. “Our measurement of success is in the removal of threats.”
Another major listed threat in addition to those mentioned is predation.
Koch admitted that Sage Grouse were made to be eaten as part of the ecosystem, but predation had been identified as a threat in order to come at the problem from a second angle.
“When your lawn is flooding you can shut off the spigot or you can go get a pump,” Koch said. “Or, when necessary, you can do both.”
USFWS would look to limit the raven population (a major predator for Sage Grouse) by shutting off the food spigot.
“We would limit access to road kill and other food sources,” Koch said.
Then came the second question that Koch danced around.
Landowner Benny Romero asked how the USFWS was accounting for evolution in this process.
“It’s a prehistoric bird,” Romero pointed out. “We don’t have dinosaurs anymore.”
“That’s like the ‘how many birds is enough’ question,” Koch said. “It’s a good question but we don’t think evolution is affecting this timeframe [the 40 years that the ESA has been in existence].”
Koch pointed out that the USFWS only had one staff biologist, Steve Abele, working on the Sage Grouse topic. The County offered to have its consulting biologist, Dr. Jim Paulus, assist Abele.
Dr. Paulus, himself, also offered assistance at the meeting.
“I have gathered qualitative and quantitative data that might be helpful,” Paulus said.
While Koch continued to advocate for participation and dialogue, he couldn’t confirm that an extension would be granted, and therefore give the USFWS the time to use Paulus’s data, although he was not against the assistance. He pointed out again that deadlines were court driven.
“A Dec. 27 deadline does not give much time to have a dialogue,” said Supervisor Fred Stump. “It contradicts your desire for dialogue.”
“I agree emphatically that there is not enough time,” Koch said.
“Don’t let a lawsuit push this forward or not allow the 90 days,” urged Stump.
“Allow us 90 days for us to help you,” added Johnston.
At this point, Supervisor Tim Alpers had enough of the banter. “That you’re understaffed is not our problem. Your minds are like concrete, thoroughly mixed and permanently set. If you leave today without the thought of an extension of comments you’ll prove everyone’s thoughts [about distrusting government, which had been raised several times throughout the workshop] right. Our comments are extensive because this is important to us.”