California and Nevada sage grouse protections disappear into hot air
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This past Tuesday, the citizens of Reno, Nev. were treated to an impressive act of political sleight of hand. Based on a series of voluntary conservation efforts affecting only 3.4 percent of grouse habitat, Interior Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellOvernight Energy: Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone | UN report offers dire climate warning | Trump expected to lift ethanol restrictions Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone Blind focus on ‘energy dominance’ may cripple Endangered Species Act MORE nevertheless determined that 11 major threats to the tiny remnant populations of the Mono Basin sage grouse no longer threaten the species with extinction, as if by magic. The result is a political hijacking of the Endangered Species Act process that is required by law to render decisions based on facts and science. Wildlife loses, healthy lands lose and bureaucrats declare victory.

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If the public was expecting Jewell to pull a rabbit out of her hat with an announcement of new local protections, they were surely disappointed. The same threats loom, the same scarce populations hang in the balance, the same absence of habitat protection applies across most of the bird's range. The administration, it seems, simply changed its mind that Mono Basin grouse declines are a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Throughout the press conference announcing withdrawal of the proposed "threatened species" listing, each speaker tried to eclipse the last in praise of the collective, voluntary effort to protect sage grouse. In vapid platitudes, speaker after speaker praised the $45 million spent to improve habitat or secure conservation easements on some 44,800 acres of grouse habitat, neglecting to mention that these measures do not apply to most private lands with sage grouse habitat.

Don't get me wrong. It's great that conservation-minded landowners and agencies are willing to take positive steps to protect sage grouse.

But these voluntary efforts can't make up for the current absence of mandatory protections on the rest of this population's 1.8 million acres of critical habitat, originally proposed for protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Let's face it: The real threats aren't coming from the people who are willing to adopt voluntary conservation measures. They're coming from the unwilling. That's why collaborative conservation fails in the absence of required protections.

What about the "Bi-State Action Plan," the conservation centerpiece justifying the administration's sudden about-face on grouse protection? The plan is a 2012 compendium of aspirational conservation principles containing not a single enforceable grouse protection.

In late 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assessed the overall conservation effort in the Mono Basin region, including the "Bi-State Action Plan," and deemed it crippled by "the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms." Today, nothing has changed, but miraculously, these once-fatal flaws to grouse recovery are now being touted as conservation solutions.

In October 2013, official assessments indicated that the Mono Basin sage grouse faced multiple significant threats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enumerated these as infrastructure (including fences, power lines and roads); grazing and rangeland management; nonnative and native invasive plants; wildfires and altered fire regimes; and the small size of the Mono Basin population, which increases the risk of extinction.

In addition, the small number, size and isolation of the populations magnify the effects of other less significant impacts that are currently acting upon the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment (DPS), including urbanization and habitat conversion, mining, renewable energy development, climate (including drought), hunting, recreation (including off-road vehicle use), disease and predation.

Almost every acre of Mono Basin sage grouse habitat is grazed by livestock. Irresponsible grazing strips away hiding cover and causes the spread of cheatgrass, a major problem for sage grouse. Habitat invaded by cheatgrass loses its value to grouse, but more importantly, this invasive weed fuels unnaturally frequent fires. Grouse habitat may not recover from fire for decades, even a century. The Fish and Wildlife Service admits that fire risk will be even greater in the future, a risk that will be amplified further by the changing climate.

Mining is big business in Nevada. One need only look at the Anaconda open-pit copper mine outside Yerington, sprawling across more than five square miles of former sage grouse habitat, to see the catastrophic potential that mining has for remaining habitats in the region. This mine remains an open wound after 35 years of abandonment. Yet strip mining like this is still allowed across every acre of Mono Basin sage grouse habitat, and an estimated 20,000 active mining claims exist.

But private landowners are doing their part, right?

Some 88 percent of current sage grouse habitats on private lands in the Mono Basin area have no conservation easements at all. Meanwhile, counties in both Nevada and California have failed to adopt zoning that prevents new subdivisions and strip malls on important sage grouse habitats. So there is nothing to stop further residential and commercial development on the vast majority of private land, either.

In light of these serious and unresolved threats to the Mono Basin sage grouse population, Jewell's remarks that "this amazing species no longer faces the imminent threat of ... extinction" look foolhardy at best, and disingenuous at worst.

Under the Bush administration, political appointees pushed science aside and declared that sage grouse did not merit federal protections. The courts promptly overturned their conclusions. In his inaugural address, President Obama promised to "restore science to its rightful place" in setting federal policy. But for the Mono Basin sage grouse, science has taken a back seat to a strange political calculus in which tiny and isolated populations on the brink of extinction and facing a multitude of human-caused threats, paired with an absence of legally binding protections, add up to "no additional protection needed." Apparently the Interior secretary didn't get the memo about the president's "new era of responsibility."

Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.