RENO, Nev. — A federal judge ruled the Trump administration acted unlawfully in 2020 when it withdrew an earlier proposal to list as threatened a chicken-sized bird found only in the high desert along the California-Nevada line.
This is the latest development in the recurring and recurring protection of the two-state sage-grouse – a cousin of the greater sage-grouse – under the Endangered Species Act over the past two decades.
The greater sage grouse lives in sagebrush habitat in 12 western states, including California and Nevada, while the bistate grouse only exists along the eastern front of the Sierra. Threats to the survival of both include urbanization, cattle grazing, and forest fires.
After:These remarkable species were saved from the brink of extinction
U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley in San Francisco said on Monday the agency relied on faulty assumptions to conclude in 2020 that the ground-dwelling bird “is not likely to become an endangered species. extirpation in the foreseeable future in a significant part of its range”.
She reinstated the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s original 2013 listing proposal for the bi-state grouse and ordered the agency to issue a new, final listing decision.
After rejecting listing petitions in 2001 and 2005, the Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed threatened status for the bi-state grouse in 2013, but dropped that proposal two years later.
In 2018, another U.S. judge in San Francisco found the agency unlawfully denied the birds protection and ordered it to reassess its status.
The agency then offered protection again, but in March 2020 the Trump administration withdrew that proposal. The service said by the time its last review indicated the population had improved, largely due to voluntary protective measures adopted by state agencies, ranchers and others.
The Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit challenging the decision in October 2020. The judge on Monday accepted their claims that the agency’s action was “arbitrary and capricious”.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the population of bistate grouse is half of what it was 150 years ago along the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada.
About 3,500 of the birds are thought to have remained on 7,000 square miles (18,129 square kilometers) of mostly high desert sagebrush stretching from Carson City to near Yosemite National Park.
“We’ve observed for more than a decade that these sage-grouse have continued to decline,” said Ileene Anderson, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Without the legal protection of the Endangered Species Act, multiple threats will continue to push these grouse towards extinction,” she said Tuesday.
Agency officials were reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment, Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Robyn Gerstenslager said Wednesday.
Among other things, the judge said the service failed to properly analyze the impact that declining numbers of birds in small population management units might have on its overall risk of extinction.
Lawyers for the service had argued that any errors in the scientific assumptions of the examination were not serious enough to alter its conclusion on the overall condition of the bird. The judge disagreed.
“These errors go to the heart of the service’s listing decision and are not trivial,” she wrote.