A bird found only in California and Nevada no longer faces the threat of extinction and doesn't require federal protection, officials said just months before a more-sweeping decision is due on whether to declare other sage grouse threatened or endangered in 11 Western states.
The bistate, Mono Basin sage grouse is no longer at risk because agreements with ranchers to conserve land and other improvements in the bird's habitat have helped stabilize its population along the Sierra Nevada's eastern front, Interior Department officials told The Associated Press ahead of Secretary Sally Jewell's announcement planned Tuesday in Reno.
"The threats are no longer of a magnitude that would require listing," said Mary Grim, regional sage grouse coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The bird is a separate population from the greater sage grouse, which is under consideration for protection in Nevada, California and nine other states. The Fish and Wildlife Service has to make that court-ordered decision by Sept. 30 in a legal battle with conservationists that spans more than 15 years.
The agency intends to make the decision on time, but Congress passed a budget prohibiting money from being spent on implementing a listing for greater sage grouse. Western lawmakers feared protections would trigger new restrictions on ranchers, energy exploration and other land development.
Jewell said in remarks prepared for the announcement with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval that she intends to withdraw an earlier proposal to declare the bistate population threatened.
"The collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and Californian are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development," she said.
Jason Weller, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource and Conservation Service, said he believes the steps taken in Nevada and California should be used as a model to head off a potential listing of the greater sage grouse stretching across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota.
"Today's decision is only for the bistate sage grouse, but it gives me great hope and optimism," Weller said. "I hope folks take a hard look at this decision, the key ingredients and what we can learn from that and apply those to the greater sage grouse, because that's what's up next."
Government scientists estimate 2,500 to 9,000 bistate sage grouse are spread across more than 7,000 square miles of sagebrush habitat straddling the Nevada-California line from Carson City to near Yosemite National Park.
The Fish and Wildlife Service identified the bistate grouse as a distinct subspecies in 2010 and was concerned about the rate of habitat loss when it proposed listing the bird as threatened two years ago, Grim said. Since then, groups including ranchers, gold mines and local government agencies have committed more than $45 million to restoration efforts over the next 15 years, making the listing unnecessary, she said.
"If you look at the science, look at the commitments we have, clearly in comparison to 2010, the future looks very bright for bistate sage grouse," Grim said. "There's no reason to think the subspecies is at risk now or in the future of going extinct."