RENO, Nev. (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted illegally in 2015 when it denied Endangered Species Act protection for a distinct population of bi-state sage grouse in California and Nevada, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero in San Francisco said in an 85-page opinion that the agency ignored its own best scientific evidence when it reversed course three years ago on its 2013 proposal to declare the bird threatened.
The bi-state sage grouse found along the California-Nevada border in the Mono Basin along the Sierra’s eastern front is related to but distinct from the greater sage grouse, which lives in a dozen western states and is at the center of a disputed Trump administration plan to roll back protections adopted under President Obama.
The judge said the service wrongly concluded voluntary conservation measures in the works were legally adequate to stem the loss of bi-state grouse habitat resulting from urban sprawl, livestock grazing, wildfires, invasive plants, mining and other development.
The agency “erred in concluding there was sufficient certainty of effectiveness of planned conservation measures to support the conclusion that listing” the bird as threatened “was no longer warranted,” Spero wrote. “There are no rational grounds for the service’s conclusion.”
He ordered a new hearing to decide whether the agency must conduct another review of the bird’s status or develop some other “appropriate remedy” in light of his ruling.
Conservationists who filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the listing decision said it was a significant victory.
“Sage grouse in the Mono Basin have been sliding toward extinction for years,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center of Biological Diversity, one of the co-plaintiffs along with WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project.
“We’re thrilled the court recognized it was wrong for the Fish and Wildlife Service to ignore the significance of the likely future loss of several subpopulations in denying protection to these birds,” Anderson said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment
The state of Nevada, Nevada Association of Counties and Mono County of California had filed as defendant-intervenors in support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to withdraw its listing proposal three years ago.
“The service properly weighed the best available science developed by bistate partners over two decades,” state lawyers wrote on behalf of Attorney General Adam Laxalt in court filings in February.
They said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled as recently as 2014 that “when examining a scientific determination .... a reviewing court must generally be at its most deferential” to a federal agency’s decision.
Spero agreed in his ruling that — because predicting the future status of wildlife is a difficult task — courts must give deference to the agency’s evaluation of “scientific data within its expertise.”
“Nonetheless, the service must offer SOME rational basis for its conclusions that future conservation efforts will be effective enough to improve the status of the bi-state (grouse) and therefore warrant withdrawal of the proposed listing,” he wrote.
Nevada state lawyers involved with the case weren’t immediately available to comment late Tuesday, Laxalt’s spokeswoman Monica Moazez said.
Eric Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, said the species needs “ironclad, science-based” protections not voluntary ones.
“The court clearly recognized the huge disparity between the severity of the threats facing this beleaguered bird population and the random acts of conservation adopted by state and local governments,” Molvar said.