A federal judge sided with environmental groups on Monday, May 16, ruling that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) acted illegally in 2020 to withdraw a proposal to list the to the bi-state population of greater sage grouse as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal must now go forward, clearing a path to federal protections.

The ruling marks the most recent development in a long-running legal fight that began in 2001 to give the bi-state population Engendered Species protections. Emblematic of the short-grass western prairies and a flashpoint in the ongoing debate between conservation and exploitation in the west, Sage grouse are separated into six genetically distinct populations across a 12-state range. Bi-state sage grouse live in an area around the southwestern California-Nevada border with an estimated population of about  3,300 birds, which is about half of what existed historically.

The USFWS rejected requests to list the bi-state sage grouse as threatened in 2001 and 2005, then proposed listing them in 2013, before abandoning the proposal in 2015. Environmental groups won a ruling in 2018 when a judge found that the agency had illegally denied protection to bi-state sage grouse and ordered that its ESA status be re-evaluated.

Following the re-evaulation, the agency proposed protecting bi-state sage grouse as threatened, again, then withdrew the proposal, again, stating voluntary protections had helped populations improve. In response, the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, and WildEarth Guardians sued in October 2020.

Earlier this week, Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled for the plaintiffs, stating the USFWS did not use the best available science as justification for withdrawing the decision to list the grouse as threatened. The judge added that the agency had “erred” in several ways, including its estimate that the population was high enough to be above the minimum threshold for viability; that the population is not likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future; and that the removal of cheatgrass was a sufficient conservation measure.

Although invasive cheatgrass poses a large threat to greater sage grouse, conservationists and researchers also blame housing development, mining, wildfire, and grazing practices for the bird’s decline. While this decision won’t automatically reverse the downward trend, it does seem to reverse almost 10 years of starts and stops in the journey to protect bi-state sage grouse with ‘threatened” status.

Bi-state greater sage grouse won’t be afforded full threatened protection by the judge’s ruling. The USFWS still has to list the bird officially. While “threatened” status means the birds can’t be hunted, currently no part of the bi-state sage grouse range in Nevada or California has open seasons on the birds, and any listing of this particular population would not have any impact on sage grouse hunting in the rest of Nevada.