The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed granting the Mono Basin population of the greater sage grouse protection as a Threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, it announced Friday. The grouse lives in the in the Mono Lake region of the Great Basin desert east of the Sierra Nevada, in California and in adjacent Nevada.
The decision comes as part of a 2011 legal settlement between USFWS and the Center For Biological Diversity (CBD) in which the agency has agreed to decide whether to protect more than 700 species that CBD says are critically imperiled.
USFWS's proposal, which will be published in the Federal Register Monday, kicks off a 60-day public comment period before the listing can be made final.
The listing is likely to be opposed by ranching and energy development interests. Sage grouse protection has been a hot-button issue in the rural communities of the Great Basin, mainly because agriculture and grazing have degraded or destroyed much of the birds' sage brush steppe habitat, and protection for the grouse necessarily means curtailing agriculture and ranching to some extent.
There's some evidence that Westerners' habitual extermination of coyotes also hurts sage grouse populations, possibly by allowing an increase in smaller predators that are more likely to raid grouse nests. Wildfire, the spread of invasive cheatgrass, and hunting have also wreaked havoc with grouse numbers.
USFWS is also proposing to designate 1,868,017 acres of land in California and Nevada -- almost 3,000 square miles -- as critical habitat for the sage grouse.
The Mono Basin population of the grouse, referred to in the USFWS proposal as the "Bi-State Distinct Population Segment" of the species Centrocercus urophasianus, is a genetically distinct, isolated population of the sage grouse species well to the southwest of the rest of the species' range. The Bi-State DPS lives in Mono, Alpine, and Inyo counties in California, and Storey, Carson, Douglas, Mineral, and Esmeralda counties in Nevada.
Estimates of the number of remaining Mono Basin sage grouse vary. USFWS quotes ballpark numbers ranging from 1,800 to 7,400 remaining birds.
Sage grouse are likely best known for their reproductive behavior, in which numerous males gather and display at "leks," and females make their mating choices based on which males they find most impressive. Here's a (safe for work) video of Mono Basin sage grouse males displaying at a lek near Bodie:
The Mono Basin sage grouse proposal may be a preview of USFWS decisions to come for the species as a whole, which the agency is expected to review by 2015.
"The sage grouse we have here in Nevada and California is a true symbol of all that is wild -- what a relief that it's finally getting the protection it needs to survive," said CBD's Nevada representative Rob Mrowka. "These birds are facing so many threats that Endangered Species Act protection really can't come too soon."