A small subset of sage grouse called threatened, can the rest of the species be far behind?

On Friday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate as threatened — under the terms of the Endangered Species Act — the bi-state greater sage grouse found along the northern California-Nevada border, supposedly a distinct population segment of about 5,000 remaining birds. Sage grouse are legally hunted in both states.

The service plans to 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.

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

After the decision is published in the Federal Register the service will take comments for 60 days.

The Center for Biological Diversity claims the population of this group of grouse has declined by up to 70 percent, though it does not say over what time span.

Though this proposal is only for a specific subset of sage grouse, it does not bode well for economic prospects in the rest of the state or the West — where one estimate of its population as of 2007 was 535,000 — if such a designation is extended to cover all sage grouse habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s Nevada ecologist Rob Mrowka said, “These birds are facing so many threats that Endangered Species Act protection really can’t come too soon. … Because the bi-state sage grouse exists at the periphery of the species’ range and is genetically unique, it contains characteristics that could be critically important to the survival of the greater sage grouse as a whole, particularly in light of climate change.”

Sounds similar to claims about the Northern Spotted Owl, whose designation as endangered devastated the Northwest timber industry, though there are doubts about its uniqueness, as they have been interbreeding with more aggressive barred owls.

The claimed threats to the sage grouse include grazing and invasive species — such as cheatgrass, pinyon and junipers — that crowd out the birds’ preferred sagebrush. Additionally, transmission lines provide a convenient perch for predators such as ravens.

The Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in its proposal Friday that it is preparing “an analysis of the economic impacts of the proposed critical habitat designation and related factors. We will announce the availability of the draft economic analysis as soon as it is completed, at which time we will seek additional public review and comment.”

Why the agency is doing this is unclear, since the Endangered Species Act says economic factors cannot be considered when determining whether to list a species as threatened or endangered, but must be “based solely on the best scientific and commercial data available.”

Of course, pay no heed to the fact that sage grouse were very seldom spotted until European settlers arrived with their sheep and cattle to trample and fertilize the land and develop water resources. The matter of “historic population” depends entirely on what date is picked for a baseline.

The Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, created by the Nevada Legislature this past session, is trying to find ways to convince Fish and Wildlife that sage grouse and its habitat can be protected without resorting to listing under the Endangered Species Act, which creates so many arbitrary restrictions on land use. It has its work cut out for it, and had better redouble its efforts.

The handwriting is on the wall, and the handwringing will soon follow.