RENO, Nev. – For the third time in a decade, federal wildlife officials are contemplating whether the bi-state sage grouse deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Conservationists blame “political gamesmanship” for leaving the bird in regulatory limbo since 2013. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday it's doing a fresh review after a federal judge ruled last May that the Trump administration acted illegally when it withdrew the most recent proposal to list the species as threatened.
The hen-sized bird can be found in just two states — Nevada and California — in the high desert along the Sierra Nevada’s eastern front. A formal listing could bring restrictions on development, as well as prevent livestock and off-road vehicles from entering the bird's habitat.
“Maybe the third time will be the charm for getting this population segment the protection it so clearly deserves,” said Laura Cunningham, California director of the Western Watersheds Project.
“None of the science shows that the bi-state birds have benefited from the service’s dithering,” she said.
The population is down to some 3,300 birds, about half what it was 150 years ago, and conservationists say they likely suffered additional losses as a result of one of the snowiest Sierra winters in modern history.
The bi-state grouse is a cousin of the greater sage grouse found across 12 western states from Oregon to South Dakota. Threats to its survival include urbanization, livestock grazing, wildfires, climate change and ravens who eat their eggs.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comment through June 26 and intends to make a new listing determination by May 2024.
The new review is a step in the right direction, said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians had filed the lawsuit accusing the government of violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to respond to the bird's dire condition.
"The political gamesmanship surrounding the bi-state sage grouse’s listing status is, sadly, not unique to this imperiled species,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians.
The service rejected listing petitions in 2001 and 2005 before proposing the bird be declared threatened in 2013. But it withdrew that proposal two years later.
In 2018, a federal judge found the agency had illegally denied the bird protection and ordered a reevaluation of its status.
The agency again proposed protection, but withdrew that proposal in 2020 based on its conclusion that the bird’s population had improved.
A different federal judge ruled last May that the agency had based that decision on flawed assumptions. She reinstated the original 2013 listing proposal and ordered the service to issue a new decision.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said in its formal notice published Thursday it will be initiating an entirely new species status assessment.
This story was first published on April 28, 2023. It was updated on May 4, 2023, to correct the closing date of the public comment period. It ends on June 26, not June 23.