Federal agency reopens comment period for listing of bi-state sage grouse

Whoa, did not see that coming.

On Tuesday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posted on the Federal Register a proposal to reopen the comment period on its decision to list the bi-state sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Back in October FWS reported there were only 5,000 bi-state or Mono Basin sage grouse, supposedly a distinct population, left along the northern California-Nevada border. The agency said it would set aside nearly 1.9 million acres in Carson City, Lyon, Douglas, Mineral and Esmeralda counties in Nevada, as well as land in Alpine, Mono and Inyo counties in California, as critical habitat. This could lead to restrictions on mining, grazing, farming, fences, oil and gas exploration, roads, power lines, wind turbines and solar panels, various forms of recreation and more — costing jobs and economic development.

This opened a 60-day comment period.

A Mono Basin sage grouse. (National Park Service photo)

In its Tuesday posting, FWS said it had found substantial disagreement regarding the interpretation of the best available data on the birds. “Some commenters stated that our science was flawed and that there are more sage-grouse in the Bi-State area today as opposed to the past, whereas other commenters (including peer reviewers) believe there is a declining trend and continuing threats. It is evident in the comment letters received that analysis or interpretation of data vary between state, agency, public, and peer reviewers,” the FWS concedes.

With the extension of the comment deadline, FWS now plans to make a final determination on the bi-state sage grouse no later than April 28, 2015. The agency already has a deadline of September 2015 to decide whether to list the greater sage grouse, which are found in 11 Western states.

Among those questioning the science behind the greater sage grouse proposed listing is the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability (CESAR), headquartered in Colorado.  CESAR claims the service relied almost exclusively on studies written by employees of federal agencies who basically peer reviewed each other’s work.

Those studies listed “threats” to the grouse as including converting sagebrush to crop land, livestock grazing, oil and gas wells, wind and solar farms, roads and the general “human footprint,” but made no mention whatsoever of predators or hunting, even though 207,000 sage grouse were killed by hunters between 2001 and 2007.

According to CESAR, it was unable to replicate the analyses used by federal researchers because none of the data or algorithms was publicly available.

“Thus, since the results are neither reproducible nor verifiable,” CESAR said, “the study fails the fundamental litmus test of sound science.”

Before listing either the bi-state or the greater sage grouse, someone needs to do some sound scientific studies and realistically look at what truly is a threat to these birds —including the lack of wildfire prevention efforts on federally controlled land.

Congressman Mark Amodei applauded the reopening of comments, but said only time will tell. “The proof will be at the end of the comment when we’ll be able to see if anything has really changed,” his spokesman said.

Newspaper column: Are sage grouse really threatened?

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are pliable.

The Legislature set up a committee to protect sagebrush ecosystems in an effort to prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Sage grouse

The committee is coming up with plans, maps, mitigation strategies and whatever it takes, because such a listing would place huge swaths of rural Nevada and other Western states off-limits to mining, grazing, farming, fences, oil and gas exploration, roads, power lines, wind turbines and solar panels, various forms of recreation and more — killing jobs and economic development, as recounted in this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Hardly anyone is questioning the Fish and Wildlife Service’s claim that the sage grouse population is dwindling toward potential extinction.

But in a paper published in February 2012 a group calling itself the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability (CESAR) questioned the validity of the assumptions and data and math used by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The question atop the opening page is: “Science or Advocacy?”

CESAR claims the service relied almost exclusively on a monograph, “Studies in Avian Biology,” by a private group called the Cooper Ornithological Society and says much of the material was written by employees of federal agencies who basically peer reviewed each other’s work.

The center’s review of “Avian Biology” found insufficient data to support the premise that sage grouse populations have declined from those present prior to European exploration and settlements, “particularly in light of the very small numbers of sage grouse documented by the first Europeans.”

Read the entire column at the Ely or Elko websites.

Read the pdf: Sage Grouse Report