Bi-State Sage-Grouse Gain New Chance at Federal Protections

For immediate release
August 27, 2018

Media contacts:

Lisa Belenky, Center for Biological Diversity (510) 844-7107;

Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project (307) 399-7910;

Bethany Cotton, WildEarth Guardians (406) 414-7227;

Isaac Cheng, Stanford Law School (650) 736-8775;

Court Invalidates Key Piece of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Significant Portion of Range” Policy

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Last Friday, a federal judge reinstated the  proposed “threatened species” listing status for the bi-state population of greater sage-grouse and proposed designation of 1.8 million acres of its “critical habitat.” The same judge in the Northern District of California overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to provide Endangered Species Act protections to the bi-state grouse in May. The court agreed with conservation plaintiffs that the agency failed to adequately justify changing course and depriving the bird of Endangered Species Act safeguards in 2015. The court also invalidated the Service’s definition of “significance” in its controversial “significant portion of range” policy.

“This important victory reinstates crucial protections for these beleaguered birds while a new listing decision is made,” said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Sage grouse in the California and Nevada Bi-State population are in deep trouble, and the Fish and Wildlife Service should do the right thing and shield them from extinction. The Endangered Species Act is the perfect tool for pulling these amazing animals back from the brink.”

Bi-state greater sage-grouse are an isolated group of greater sage-grouse living in the far southwestern reach of the species’ range along the central border of California and Nevada. The entire population of the bi-state sage-grouse is estimated to be between 2,500 and 10,000 birds, within just six population management units and 43 active breeding grounds, called leks. The limited connectivity between and among the subgroups raises concerns about inbreeding and a loss of genetic diversity, threatening the species’ survival.

In addition to finding flaws with the agency’s rationale to not provide Endangered Species Act protections to the bird, the court found that the agency impermissibly defined “significant” in its application of its “significant portion of the range” policy. The current policy, found to be illegal under this ruling, limited “significant portion of its range” to populations that would cause the entire species to go extinct if they were lost. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity and allies won a precedent-setting ruling that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s policy interpreting “significant portion of range” for a species was legally invalid in the context of litigation over the rare pygmy owl, but that ruling limited the scope of the victory to Arizona. This new bi-state sage-grouse ruling overturns the so-called “SPoR” policy nationwide.

“This is a hard-fought win to restore the true meaning of the Endangered Species Act,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “Thanks to the bi-state sage-grouse, species around the nation will be eligible for listing if they are in danger of extinction across a significant portion of their range, instead of waiting until the entire species is on the brink of disappearing, which returns rare species conservation efforts to the original intent of the law.”

“We call on the Fish and Wildlife Service to do its duty and making a determination to provide Endangered Species Act protections based not on politics, but on the best available science,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The proven effective tools the Endangered Species Act provides can help bi-state sage grouse survive and recover, but only if the birds receive those needed protections.”

The plaintiff organizations include Desert Survivors, Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and Western Watersheds Project and were represented by attorneys at Center for Biological Diversity and the Stanford Law Clinic. Click on the links for the remedies ruling and the May 2018 court order.

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