Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Withdrawal of the Proposed Rules To List the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment of Greater Sage-Grouse With Section 4(d) Rule and To Designate Critical Habitat, 18054-18099 [2020-06384]

Download as PDF 18054 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules Fish and Wildlife Service device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Relay Service at 800–877–8339. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 50 CFR Part 17 Executive Summary DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR [Docket Nos. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0106 and FWS–R8–ES–2018–0107; FF09E21000 FXES11110900000 201] RINs 1018–BD87 and 1018–BD88 Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Withdrawal of the Proposed Rules To List the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment of Greater Sage-Grouse With Section 4(d) Rule and To Designate Critical Habitat Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior. ACTION: Proposed rule; withdrawal. AGENCY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), withdraw the proposed rule to list the Bi-State distinct population segment (DPS) of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in California and Nevada as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). We concurrently withdraw the proposed rule under section 4(d) of the Act and the proposed rule to designate critical habitat for the DPS. These withdrawals are based on our conclusion that the threats to the DPS as identified in the proposed listing rule no longer are as significant as believed at the time of publication of the 2013 proposed rule. We find the best scientific and commercial data available indicate that the threats to the DPS and its habitat, given current and future conservation efforts, are reduced to the point that the DPS does not meet the Act’s definition of an ‘‘endangered species’’ or of a ‘‘threatened species.’’ DATES: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is withdrawing proposed rules published on October 28, 2013 (78 FR 64328 and 64358) as of March 31, 2020. ADDRESSES: Relevant documents are available on the internet at either Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0106 or Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0107 on http:// www.regulations.gov. Relevant documents used in the preparation of this withdrawal are also available for public inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours at the Reno Fish and Wildlife Office (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT). FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Lee Ann Carranza, Deputy Field Supervisor, Reno Fish and Wildlife Office, 1340 Financial Boulevard, Suite 234, Reno, NV 89502; telephone 775–861–6300. Persons who use a telecommunications jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 SUMMARY: VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 Why we need to publish this document. Under the Act, a species may warrant protection through listing if it is endangered or threatened throughout all or a significant portion of its range. We issued a proposed rule to list a distinct population segment (DPS) of greater sage-grouse in California and Nevada (known as the Bi-State DPS) in 2013. However, this document withdraws that proposed rule because we now determine that threats identified in the proposed rule have been reduced such that listing is not necessary for this DPS. Accordingly, we also withdraw the proposed rule under section 4(d) of the Act and the proposed critical habitat designation. The basis for our action. Under the Act, we may determine that a species is an endangered or threatened species because of any of five factors: (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence. We have determined that threats have been reduced such that listing is not necessary for the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse. Peer review. In accordance with our joint policy on peer review published in the Federal Register on July 1, 1994 (59 FR 34270), and our August 22, 2016, memorandum updating and clarifying the role of peer review of listing actions under the Act, we sought the expert opinions of five appropriate specialists regarding the species report. We received responses from three specialists, which informed this finding. The purpose of peer review is to ensure that our listing determinations, critical habitat designations, and 4(d) rules are based on scientifically sound data, assumptions, and analyses. The peer reviewers have expertise in the biology, habitat, and threats to the greater sagegrouse. Acronyms and Abbreviations Used in This Document We use many acronyms and abbreviations throughout this document. To assist the reader, we provide a list of these here for easy reference: ac = acres PO 00000 Frm 00002 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 Act or ESA = Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.) BLM = Bureau of Land Management BSAP = Bi-State Action Plan BSLPG = Bi-State Local Planning Group BSLSP = Bi-State Lek Surveillance Program CDFW = California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG)) CFR = Code of Federal Regulations COT = Conservation Objectives Team CPT = conservation planning tool CRI = credible intervals DPS = distinct population segment EOC = Executive Oversight Committee FR = Federal Register ha = hectares HTNF = Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest IPM = integrated population model LADWP = Los Angeles Department of Water and Power LRMP = land resource management plan NDOW = Nevada Department of Wildlife NEPA = National Environmental Policy Act (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.) NFMA = National Forest Management Act (16 U.S.C. 1600 et seq.) NRCS = Natural Resources Conservation Service OHV = off-highway vehicle PECE = Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions PEIS = Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement PMU = population management unit RHA = rangeland health assessment RMP = resource management plan Service = U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service TAC = Technical Advisory Committee USDA = U.S. Department of Agriculture USFS = U.S. Forest Service USGS = U.S. Geological Survey WAFWA = Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies WNv = West Nile virus Previous Federal Actions The Bi-State DPS of the greater sagegrouse has a long and complex rulemaking history. Here, we will discuss only the major Federal actions related to the species. For a detailed description of previous Federal actions, please refer to the previous withdrawal of the proposed listing rule, published on April 23, 2015 (80 FR 22828), and the Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions (PECE) analysis we prepared as a supporting document for this determination (Service 2019, pp. 1– 6). On October 28, 2013, we published a proposed rule to list the Bi-State DPS as a threatened species with a 4(d) rule (78 FR 64358). On that same day, we published a proposed rule to designate critical habitat for the Bi-State DPS (78 FR 64328). On April 23, 2015, we withdrew the proposed listing rule, the proposed 4(d) rule, and the proposed critical habitat rule (80 FR 22828). This withdrawal E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 was based on our conclusion that the threats to the DPS as identified in the proposed listing rule were no longer as significant as believed at the time of publication of the proposed rule. We found that the best scientific and commercial data available indicated that the threats to the DPS and its habitat, given current and future conservation efforts as analyzed under PECE, were reduced to the point that the DPS did not meet the Act’s definition of an ‘‘endangered species’’ or of a ‘‘threatened species.’’ On March 9, 2016, Desert Survivors, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and Western Watershed Project filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The suit challenged the withdrawal of the proposal to list the BiState DPS. On May 5, 2018, the court issued a decision. The April 23, 2015, withdrawal was vacated and remanded to the Service for further consideration. The court’s action reinstated the prior proposed rules to list and to designate critical habitat for the Bi-State DPS, thereby returning the process to the proposed rule stage, and the status of the Bi-State DPS effectively reverted to that of a species proposed for listing for the purposes of consultation under section 7 of the Act. The court’s action also reinstated the proposed 4(d) rule and the proposed critical habitat designation for the Bi-State DPS. On April 12, 2019, we published in the Federal Register (84 FR 14909) a document that announced that the proposed rules were reinstated and the public comment periods were reopened for 60 days and that we would publish a final listing determination on or before October 1, 2019. On October 1, 2019, we announced a 6-month extension of the final listing determination to April 1, 2020 (84 FR 52058). We took that action based on substantial disagreement regarding the sufficiency and accuracy of the available data relevant to the proposed listing, which made it necessary to solicit additional information. That document reopened the public comment period on the proposed listing and critical habitat rules for an additional 30 days. Supporting Documents We prepared a species report for the Bi-State DPS (Service 2020, entire). The species report represents a compilation of the best scientific and commercial data available concerning the status of the species, including the impacts of past, present, and future factors (both negative and beneficial) affecting the species. The Service sent the species report to five independent peer VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 reviewers and received three responses. The Service also sent the species report to all pertinent Federal, Tribal, and State partners, including scientists with expertise in sage-grouse and sage-brush habitat in the Bi-State area. We received reviews from six partners (HumboldtToiyabe National Forest (HTNB), Inyo National Forest, two Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offices: Bishop and Carson City, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW)). These comments have been incorporated into the species report and informed this document. Summary of Changes From the Proposed Rule Based upon our review of the public comments, Federal and State agency comments, peer review comments, issues addressed at the public hearings, and any new relevant information that became available since the publication of the proposal and including new relevant information that has become available since the prior withdrawal decision, we reevaluated our proposed listing rule and made changes as appropriate in this withdrawal. Other than minor clarifications and incorporation of additional information on the species’ biology and populations, this determination differs from the proposal in the following ways: (1) A different status determination. Based on our analyses of the potential threats to the species, and our consideration of partially completed, ongoing and future conservation efforts (as outlined below in Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions), we have determined that the Bi-State DPS should not be listed as a threatened species. Specifically, we have determined that conservation efforts (as outlined in the Bi-State Action Plan (BSAP), Agency commitment letters, and our detailed PECE analysis (all of which are available at either Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0106 or Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0107 on http:// www.regulations.gov as well as the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) comprehensive project database)) will continue to be implemented because (to date) we have a documented track record of active participation and implementation by the signatory agencies and commitments to continue implementation into the future. Conservation measures, such as (but not limited to) pinyon-juniper removal, establishment of conservation easements for critical brood-rearing habitat, cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) removal, permanent and seasonal PO 00000 Frm 00003 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18055 closure of roads near leks, removal and marking of fencing, and restoration of riparian/meadow habitat have been occurring over the past decade, are currently occurring, and have been prioritized and placed on the agencies’ implementation schedules for future implementation. Agencies have committed to remain participants in the BSAP and to continue conservation of the DPS and its habitat. Additionally, the BSAP has sufficient methods for determining the type and location of the most beneficial conservation actions to be implemented, including continued development of new population and threats information in the future that will guide conservation efforts. As a result of these actions, this document withdraws the proposed rules as published on October 28, 2013 (78 FR 64328; 78 FR 64358). We have also updated our Significant Portion of the Range analysis based on a recent court finding regarding the policy. (2) Addition of PECE analysis. This document includes the Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions section, which includes some information presented in the Available Conservation Measures section of the proposed listing rule. (3) Population impacts. This document includes a discussion of the impacts of small population size and population isolation on the Bi-State DPS. (4) New information. Following publication of the proposed listing rule, we received new information pertinent to this rulemaking action. Some of the information was in response to our request for scientific peer review of the proposed listing rule, while other information was a result of new literature now available, or updated regulations. We incorporated all new information into the Species Report (Service 2020, entire), which is available on the internet at http:// www.regulations.gov under either Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0106 or Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0107, as well as within this document where appropriate. New information includes (but is not limited to): • A variety of biological or habitat clarifications, such as hen movement distances, nesting success, and invasive plant species influence on sagebrushhabitat dynamics. • Updated trend and population analyses. Multiple new papers examining the population dynamics and trends of the Bi-State DPS (Coates et al. 2014, entire; Coates et al. 2018, entire; Mathews et al. 2018, entire; Coates et al. E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 18056 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 2020, entire). These studies are incorporated into the Species Report and discussed throughout this document. • Two genetic evaluations, one of which concluded there are three or four unique genetic clusters within the BiState area (Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 8), and a second that concluded there were five unique genetic clusters (Tebbenkamp 2014, p. 18). Tebbenkamp (2014) did not evaluate the Pine Nut population; thus, six populations may have been identified by Tebbenkamp (2014) had the Pine Nut population data been available. • New information on the effectiveness of pinyon-juniper removal has become available in recent years (Prochazka et al. 2017, entire; Severson et al. 2017, entire; Sandford et al. 2017, entire; Coates et al. 2017b, entire; Olsen 2019, entire). These studies are incorporated into the Species Report and discussed throughout this document. (5) New ESA factor D analysis. In the 2013 proposed listing rule, we analyzed the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms in a separate section. Here, we evaluate the effects of existing regulatory mechanisms within each threat analysis, rather than evaluating regulatory mechanisms in a separate section, so that it is clear how the existing regulatory mechanisms relate to the stressor being analyzed. (6) Significant portion of the range (SPR) analysis. Since 2013, we have a new policy regarding the Service’s interpretation of the phrase ‘‘significant portion of the range’’ (79 FR 37578; July 1, 2014). We also have new guidance regarding application of that policy (Service 2017, entire), which was published subsequent to the 2015 withdrawal of the proposed rule. Additionally, certain parts of the policy have been invalidated by court orders. We have completed our SPR analysis for the Bi-State DPS in accordance with the 2014 policy and the 2017 guidance as further refined by applicable court decisions. Background In our 12-month findings on petitions to list three entities of sage-grouse (75 FR 13910, March 23, 2010), we found that the Bi-State population of greater sage-grouse in California and Nevada meets our criteria to qualify as a DPS of the greater sage-grouse under Service policy (61 FR 4722, February 7, 1996). We reaffirmed this finding in the October 28, 2013, proposed listing rule (78 FR 64358) and do so again in this document. This determination is based principally on genetic information VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 (Benedict et al. 2003, p. 308; OylerMcCance et al. 2005, p. 1307), where the DPS was found to be both markedly separated and significant to the remainder of the greater sage-grouse taxon. The Bi-State DPS defines the far southwestern limit of the species’ range along the border of eastern California and western Nevada (Stiver et al. 2006, pp. 1–11; 71 FR 76058, December 19, 2006). Although the Bi-State DPS is a genetically unique and markedly separate population, the DPS has similar life-history and habitat requirements to the greater sage-grouse throughout the rest of its range. In the October 28, 2013, proposed listing rule (78 FR 64358), the species report, and this document, we use information specific to the Bi-State DPS where available but still apply scientific management principles for greater sage-grouse that are relevant to the Bi-State DPS’s management needs and strategies. This practice is followed by the wildlife and land management agencies that have responsibility for management of both the DPS and its habitat. A detailed discussion of the Bi-State DPS’s description, taxonomy, habitat (sagebrush ecosystem), seasonal habitat selection, life-history characteristics, home range, life expectancy and survival rates, historical and current range distribution, population estimates and lek (sage-grouse breeding complex) counts, population trends, and land ownership information is available in the species report (Service 2020, entire). The species report represents a compilation of the best scientific and commercial data available concerning the status of the Bi-State DPS, including the past, present, and future threats to this DPS. The species report and other materials relating to this final agency action can be found at http:// www.regulations.gov under either Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0106 or Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0107. Habitat and Life History Sage-grouse depend on a variety of shrub and shrub-steppe vegetation communities throughout their life cycle (Schroeder et al. 2004, p. 364). Sagebrush is the most widespread vegetation in the intermountain lowlands of the western United States and is considered one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America (West and Young 2000, p. 259; Knick et al. 2003, p. 612; Miller et al. 2011, p. 147). Most species of sagebrush are killed by fire; historical fire-return intervals are estimated to be as long as 350 years (West 1983, p. 341; Miller and Eddleman 2000, p. 17; West and Young PO 00000 Frm 00004 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 2000, p. 259; Baker 2011, pp. 191–192). Natural sagebrush recolonization in burned areas depends on the presence of adjacent live plants for a seed source or on the seed bank, if present, and requires from decades to over a century for full recovery (Miller and Eddleman 2000, p. 17; Baker 2011, pp. 194–195). Sage-grouse require large, interconnected expanses of sagebrush with healthy, native understories, in part to accommodate their seasonal shifts in habitat selection within the sagebrush ecosystem (Service 2020, p. 11). Sage-grouse exhibit strong site fidelity (loyalty to a particular area) to migration corridors and seasonal habitats, including breeding, nesting, brood-rearing, and wintering areas; they exhibit this fidelity even when a particular area may no longer be of value, limiting the species’ adaptability to habitat changes (Service 2020, p. 11). However, recent research has suggested that this high degree of site fidelity may be more flexible than has traditionally been considered, at least with respect to certain restoration actions (e.g., tree removal; Sandford et al. 2017, p. 64; Severson et al. 2017, p. 55). During the spring breeding season, male sage-grouse gather to perform courtship displays at leks or traditional strutting grounds. Areas of bare soil, short-grass steppe, windswept ridges, exposed knolls, or other relatively open sites typically serve as leks (Patterson 1952, p. 83; Connelly et al. 2004, p. 3– 7 and references therein). The proximity, configuration, and abundance of nesting habitat are key factors influencing lek location (Connelly et al. 1981, pp. 153–154; Connelly et al. 2000a, p. 970). Leks can be formed opportunistically at any appropriate site within or adjacent to nesting habitat (Connelly et al. 2000a, p. 970); therefore, lek habitat availability is not considered a limiting factor for sagegrouse (Schroeder et al. 1999, p. 4). Leks range in size from less than 0.04 ha (0.1 ac) to over 36 ha (90 ac) (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 4–3) and can host from a few to hundreds of males (Johnsgard 2002, p. 112). The distances sage-grouse move between seasonal habitats are highly variable across the occupied range (Connelly et al. 1988, pp. 119–121). Migration can occur between distinct winter, breeding, and summer areas or the seasonal-use areas may be variously integrated (e.g., winter and breeding areas may be the same and broodrearing sites are disjunct). Information available regarding seasonal migrations and migratory corridors for sage-grouse in the Bi-State area is variable. Some local breeding complexes (a general E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 aggregation of birds associated with a particular lek or collection of leks in relatively close proximity to one another) remain fairly resident throughout the year while others demonstrate a more itinerant nature (Casazza et al. 2009, p. 8). Still, all sage-grouse gradually move from sagebrush uplands to more mesic areas (moist areas such as upland meadows) during the late brood-rearing/ summer period (3 weeks post-hatch) in response to summer desiccation of herbaceous vegetation (Connelly et al. 2000a, p. 971; Atamian et al. 2010, p. 1538; Connelly et al. 2011b, pp. 76–77 and references therein; Pratt et al. 2017, p. 635). Brood-rearing foraging habitats with increased perennial forb cover and plant species richness, greater meadow to sagebrush edge (ratio of perimeter to area), and a greater distance from woodlands provide for an increased probability of successful recruitment (Casazza et al. 2011, pp. 162–163). Sagegrouse will use free water, although they do not require it since they obtain water from their food. However, natural water bodies and reservoirs provide mesic areas often rich in succulent forb and insect food sources, thereby attracting sage-grouse hens with broods (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 4–12). Non-migratory sage-grouse populations have been described as VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 those with seasonal movements of less than 10 km (6.2 mi; Connelly et al. 2000a, pp. 968–969), while birds in migratory populations may travel well over 100 km (62 mi) (Tack et al. 2012, p. 65). Despite the documentation of extensive seasonal movements in this species, dispersal (permanent rather than seasonal movement) abilities of sage-grouse to other areas are assumed to be low (Fedy et al. 2012, p. 1066; Tack et al. 2012, p. 65; Davis et al. 2014, p. 716). Sage-grouse dispersal is overall poorly understood and appears sporadic, if not rare (Service 2020, p. 12). Range and Population Estimates The Bi-State DPS of greater sagegrouse historically occurred throughout most of Mono, eastern Alpine, and northern Inyo Counties, California (Hall et al. 2008, p. 97), and portions of Carson City, Douglas, Esmeralda, Lyon, Mineral, and perhaps Storey County in Nevada (Gullion and Christensen 1957, pp. 131–132; Espinosa 2019, pers. comm.). The current range of the DPS in California is presumed to be reduced from the historical range (Leach and Hensley 1954, p. 386; Hall 1995, p. 54; Schroeder et al. 2004, pp. 368–369), but the extent of range loss is not well understood. PO 00000 Frm 00005 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18057 Current management of the Bi-State DPS employs Population Management Units (PMUs) for Nevada and California as tools for defining and monitoring sage-grouse distribution. The PMU boundaries represent generalized populations or local breeding complexes and were delineated based on aggregations of leks, known seasonal habitats, and telemetry data. Six PMUs were designated for the Bi-State DPS (from north to south): Pine Nut, Desert Creek-Fales, Bodie, Mount Grant, South Mono, and White Mountains (Figure 1; Table 1). These six PMUs represent a combined total of approximately 50 active leks (see Table 1 below; Service 2020, pp. 21–33). Leks are considered either active (e.g., two or more strutting males during at least 2 years in a 5-year period), inactive (e.g., surveyed three or more times during one breeding season with no birds detected and no sign (e.g., droppings) observed), historical (e.g., no strutting activity for 20 years and have been checked according to State protocol at least intermittently), or unknown/pending (e.g., sign was observed, and one or no strutting males observed, or a lek that had activity the prior year but was not surveyed or surveyed under unsuitable conditions during the current year and reported one or no strutting males). BILLING CODE 4333–15–P E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules BILLING CODE 4333–15–C VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 PO 00000 Frm 00006 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 EP31MR20.012</GPH> jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18058 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules 18059 TABLE 1—BI-STATE DPS PMUS, PMU SIZE, ESTIMATED SUITABLE SAGE-GROUSE HABITAT, AVERAGE NUMBER OF LEKS, AVERAGE NUMBER OF ACTIVE LEKS, AND RANGE OF MAXIMUM MALES ON LEKS WITHIN EACH PMU (2003–2018) [Number pairs in parentheses are lower and upper limits of the 95 percent credible interval. Area values for ‘‘Total Size’’ and ‘‘Estimated Suitable Habitat’’ may not sum due to rounding] PMU Total size in hectares (acres) (*) Pine Nut .......................... Desert Creek-Fales †† .... Mount Grant †† ................ Bodie†† ........................... South Mono ..................... White Mountains ............. Total (all PMUs combined). Estimated suitable habitat in hectares (acres) (**) 232,440 (574,372) 229,858 (567,992) 282,907 (699,079) 141,490 (349,630) 234,508 (579,482) 709,768 (1,753,875) 1,830,972 (4,524,430) 77,848 (192,367) 105,281 (260,155) 45,786 (113,139) 105,698 (261,187) 138,123 (341,311) 53,452 (132,083) 526,188 (1,300,238) Average number of leks (***) Average number of active leks (***†) Range in maximum male counts (****) 7.3 (2.0, 9.0) ................... 1.8 (0.3, 4.7) ................... 0–67 12.8 (8.3, 15.0) ............... 6.8 (5.0, 9.7) ................... 61–220 9.6 (5.0, 11.0) ................. 4.4 (1.3, 7.0) ................... 12–220 17.3 (12.3, 20.0) ............. 13.1 (9.7, 16.7) ............... 137–512 15.6 (12.3, 19) ................ 13.3 (11.0, 16.7) ............. 172–418 2 + (not available) ........... 2 + (not available) ........... Not available 64.6 (41.9, 76.0) ............. 41.4 (29.3, 56.8) ............. 427–1,409 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 * BSLPG (2004, pp. 11, 32, 63, 102, 127, 153). ** Bi-State TAC (2012, unpublished data); BLM (2014, unpublished data). *** Derived from Mathews et al. 2018, Table 6 and Figure 17. **** Derived from NDOW and CDFW lek databases. Low and high counts occurred in 2008 and 2012, respectively. However, there was variation in annual peak male counts across PMUs; therefore, column does not sum to total. † Active—two or more strutting males during at least 2 years in a 5-year period. †† Part of the North Mono population segment in some early population analyses. Sage-grouse populations in the BiState area appear to be isolated to varying degrees from one another (Casazza et al. 2009, entire; OylerMcCance and Casazza 2011, p. 10; Tebbenkamp 2012, p. 66; OylerMcCance et al. 2014, p. 8; Tebbenkamp 2014, p. 18). Birds in the White Mountains PMU as well as those in the South Mono PMU are largely isolated from sage-grouse populations in the remainder of the Bi-State DPS (Casazza et al. 2009, pp. 34, 41; Oyler-McCance and Casazza 2011, p. 10; Tebbenkamp 2012, p. 66). Traditionally, the Pine Nut PMU was presumed isolated; however, recent data show birds are capable of moving south into the Sweetwater Mountains in the Desert Creek-Fales PMU and even further south into the Bodie PMU (USGS 2014b, entire). It is not apparent that birds leaving the Pine Nuts are returning. While adults are unlikely to switch breeding populations, it is likely that genetic material is transferred among these northern populations through the natural movements of young of the year birds, as long as there are established populations available in which to emigrate. However, fine-scale genetic differentiation among sage-grouse populations is at a relatively small geographic scope (approximately 10 km (6 mi)), suggesting dispersal among populations is highly restricted (Jahner et al. 2016, pp. 8–9). VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 Two independent genetic evaluations have concluded there are three or four (Oyler-McCance et al. (2014, p. 8) or five (Tebbenkamp 2014, p. 18) unique genetic clusters in the Bi-State area. The latter study did not evaluate the Pine Nut population (Pine Nut PMU), which has been found to be unique (OylerMcCance et al. 2014, p. 8). Based on this information, we presume that there are likely three to six populations or groups of birds in the Bi-State area that largely operate demographically independent of one another. Four separate statistical approaches to assessing the population trend of the BiState DPS have been conducted, with two of these approaches being repeated following additional years of data collection. The four approaches are: (1) Connelly et al. 2004; (2) WAFWA 2008, (3) Garton et al. (2011 and 2015); and (4) U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) 2014, 2018, and 2019 (Coates et al. 2014, Coates et al. 2018, Mathews et al. 2018; Coates et al. 2020). In 2004, WAFWA conducted a partial population trend analysis for the Bi-State area (Connelly et al. 2004, chapter 6). The WAFWA recognizes four populations of sagegrouse in the Bi-State area, which represent the same overall extent delineated by the six PMUs described in the 2012 BSAP and this document. Two of the WAFWA populations (North Mono Lake and South Mono Lake) had sufficient data for trend analysis PO 00000 Frm 00007 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 (Connelly et al. 2004, pp. 6–60 to 6–62). The North Mono Lake population encompasses the Bodie, Mount Grant, and Desert Creek-Fales PMUs, while the South Mono Lake population encompasses the South Mono PMU. The North Mono Lake population displayed a significant negative trend from 1965 to 2003, and the South Mono Lake population displayed a positive numerical trend, albeit not statistically significant, over this same period (Connelly et al. 2004, pp. 6–69 to 6–70). In 2008, WAFWA (2008, Appendix D) conducted a trend analysis on the same two populations identified above using a different statistical method for the periods from 1965 to 2007, 1965 to 1985, and 1986 to 2007. The trend for the North Mono Lake population, as measured by maximum male attendance at leks, was negative from 1965 to 2007 and 1965 to 1985, but variable from 1986 to 2007; results suggest an increasing trend beginning in about 2000. Results for the South Mono Lake population suggested a negative trend from 1965 to 2007, a stable trend from 1965 to 1985, and a variable trend from 1986 to 2007; these results also suggest a positive trend beginning around 2000. In 2011, Garton et al. (2011, pp. 324– 330) used a new approach to conduct a third trend analysis on the same populations used in the two previous WAFWA analyses. In this study, the average number of males per lek in the E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18060 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules North Mono Lake population declined by 35 percent and the average number of males per active lek declined by 41 percent from the 1965–1969 to 2000– 2007 assessment periods (Garton et al. 2011, p. 324). Based on a reconstructed minimum population estimate for males from 1965 to 2007, the overall population showed irregular fluctuations between peaks in 1970 and 1987 of 520 to 670 males, with lows above 100 and no consistent long-term trend over the 40-year period. In the South Mono Lake population, the average number of males per lek increased by 218 percent from the 1965– 1969 to 1985–1989 assessment periods but declined by 49 percent from the 1985–1989 to 2000–2007 assessment periods (Garton et al. 2011, p. 325). Based on reconstructed minimum male counts, the population showed no obvious trend through time with between 200 and 600 males attending leks. The average annual rate of change for both populations suggested that population growth has been, at times, both positive and negative over the past 40 years (Garton et al. 2011, pp. 324– 330). In 2015, the researcher updated this analysis by accumulating and analyzing several years of additional of data (Garton et al. 2015, entire). The updated estimates of population performance largely remained unchanged, while the outlook for persistence improved. For the North Mono Lake population, the estimated minimum number of males increased by 25 percent in 2013 as compared to 2007, while the probability of declining below a (researcherdefined) quasi-extinction threshold decreased (Garton et al. 2015, pp. 13– 14). For the South Mono Lake population, the estimated minimum number of males decreased by six percent in 2013 as compared to 2007, although the probability of declining below the quasi-extinction threshold remained generally unchanged. For both populations, the predicted population size in 30 and 100 years increased in 2013 as compared to 2007 (Garton et al. 2011, pp. 376–377; Garton et al. 2015, p. 45). This approach suggests both of these populations will remain relatively small, as they have historically. Modeled weighted probabilities of either population declining below an effective population sizes of 50 individuals in 30 and 100 years are generally low (approximately 8 percent in 30 years and 22 percent in 100 years for both populations; Garton et al. 2015, p. 14). In 2014, the USGS completed an analysis of population trends in the BiState area spanning the years 2003 to VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 2012 (Coates et al. 2014, entire). This analysis, termed an Integrated Population Model (IPM), integrates a variety of data such as lek counts and vital rates to inform an estimate of lambda (population growth) within the DPS. This analysis evaluated several populations in the Bi-State area including the Pine Nuts (Pine Nut PMU), Fales (California portion of the Desert Creek–Fales PMU), Desert Creek (Nevada Portion of the Desert Creek– Fales PMU), Bodie Hills (Bodie PMU), Parker Meadows (South Mono PMU), and Long Valley (South Mono PMU). It did not evaluate the populations in the Mount Grant or White Mountains PMUs due to data limitations. Results at that time suggested a stable trend in population growth across the entire BiState area between 2003 and 2012 (i.e., both increasing and decreasing at an equal rate; Coates et al. 2014, p. 19). However, the trend in population growth was variable among populations (Coates et al. 2014, pp. 14–15). Since the 2013 proposed rule and the 2015 withdrawal of the proposed listing rule, this analysis has been updated, once using a 13-year dataset spanning the years 2003 through 2015, again using 15 years of data spanning the years 2003 through 2017, and most recently using an approach that segmented the trends into three time intervals (Coates et al. 2018, entire; Mathews et al. 2018, entire; Coates et al. 2020, p. 8). The later approach was adopted to account for population cycling in sage-grouse; that is, regular periods of growth and decline naturally experienced by sage-grouse rangewide (Garton et al. 2011, p. 338). Indeed, it became apparent after analyzing the 13year and 15-year datasets that the resulting estimates of population growth rates were being biased low due to an overrepresentation of down cycle years. To alleviate this bias, the latest trend analysis analyzes three time intervals that span one, two, and three cycles, with the start and stop points occurring in the troughs of a cycle. The three time intervals are 1995–2018, 2001–2018, and 2008–2018. Not all populations had sufficient historical data to evaluate all three time periods and thus analysis was constrained to one or two time periods depending on the population. The most recent analysis includes results from the Mount Grant and White Mountains PMUs, which were previously excluded due to insufficient data. The results of the most recent iteration of the IPM suggests a general pattern of population cycling within an otherwise stable population across the Bi-State DPS with additional evidence PO 00000 Frm 00008 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 that oscillations were influenced by drought conditions in recent years (Coates et al. 2018, pp. 250, 252; Coates et al. 2020, p. 27). Furthermore, variation among individual PMU trends was apparent. The credible intervals (CRIs) reported in this study represent the range of interannual variation in lambda; that is, while annual median population growth for the Bi-State DPS as a whole in the period 1995–2019 is 1.018 (or approximately a 2 percent annual increase), the CRI reported (0.737–1.418) represents the variation in estimated lambda as it cycles from low to high over the study period, rather than the error in the median estimate for any given year. As discussed above, this analysis estimated that, across the Bi-State as a whole, estimated median population growth was 1.018 (CRI = 0.737–1.418) from 1995 through 2018, 0.989 (CRI = 0.677–1.343) from 2001 through 2018, and 0.988 (CRI = 0.704–1.304) from 2008 through 2018 (Coates et al. 2020, Table 3). More specifically, over the past decade only the Bodie Hills and Parker Meadows population demonstrated an average annual positive growth (lambda = 1.061 and lambda = 1.048, respectively). The remaining populations including Mount Grant (lambda = 0.989), Fales, (lambda = 0.965), Pine Nut (lambda = 0.835), Desert Creek (lambda = 0.938), Long Valley (lambda = 0.96), and the White Mountains (lambda = 0.85; Coates et al. 2020, Table 3) averaged slight negative growth, although in each case the 95 percent CRI overlapped 1. Additional analysis suggests that over the past 5 years performance of some individual leks in Long Valley, Fales, Bodie Hills, Mount Grant, and to a lesser extent Sagehen (a population in the South Mono PMU) have been trending (negatively) in a pattern that deviates from the Bi-State at large (Coates et al. 2020, Table 3). This analysis suggests that alternative factors (such as anthropogenic disturbance) and not climate or weather may be acting to influence these specific sites. In general, these four approaches (with some being run more than once) suggest that the trend in population growth within the Bi-State has fluctuated over the past 40 years (both increased and decreased), but over the entire timeframe has remained relatively stable. It appears that some populations (Pine Nut, Mount Grant, Bodie and Desert Creek) display greater variation in population growth (both positive and negative) and that trends among populations are variable (WAFWA 2008, Appendix D; Garton et al. 2011, p. 324, Coates et al. 2020, p. 34). Differences in E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules population trends across the same time periods in the newest study (compared to previous studies) may be due to the fact that the previous studies did not correct for the effects of population cycling (Coates et al. 2020, p. 30). Two studies forecasted the probability that some populations would become extirpated. Garton et al. (2015, p. 41) used their reconstructed male counts to forecast future probabilities of population persistence assuming that past conditions persist into the future (a potentially unrealistic assumption). They conclude that the probabilities of declining below a quasi-extinction threshold (as defined by less than 50 breeding adults per population) were approximately 8 and 22 percent over the next 30 and 100 years, respectively, for both the North Mono Lake and South Mono Lake populations. Furthermore, Garton et al. (2015, p. 41) indicate that long-term persistence (as defined by more than 500 breeding adults per population, a standard number for persistence studies) for both core populations has an estimated 100 percent probability of dropping below this 500-adult threshold in the next 30 years. However, the researchers acknowledge the cyclic nature of sagegrouse populations and note that these populations have already been both above and below this mark in previous years, which is part of that natural cycling. Furthermore, model projections suggest that, both over the near term (30 years) and the long term, the North Mono Lake and South Mono Lake populations have a relative high probability of maintaining between 50 and 500 breeding adults. Thus, in these two core populations immediate genetic concerns (e.g., inbreeding depression) are not apparent, but concern over maintaining long-term genetic and demographic viability remains. Coates et al. (2020, p. 41; Table 1) estimated 10-year extirpation probability based on the number of runs of the IPM where populations went to zero. Probabilities of extirpation ranged greatly for individual PMUs and populations within the PMUs, with highest extirpation probabilities in the Pine Nuts PMU (69.7 percent), the White Mountains PMU (75.1 percent), and the Sagehen and Parker Meadows populations of the South Mono PMU (74.8 and 64.3 percent, respectively) (Coates et al. 2020, Table 1). The BiState DPS as a whole has a 1.1 percent extirpation probability in the next 10 years, and the Desert-Creek Fales PMU (9.0 percent), the Bodie Hills PMU (2.4 percent), and the South Mono PMU as a whole (3.8 percent), as well as its largest population (Long Valley; 7.9 VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 percent) all have low probabilities of extirpation (Coates et al. 2020, Table 1). Some of these extirpation probabilities are lower than those calculated by Garton et al. (2015), likely because of differences in methods. The two studies also used different data sets, with Garton et al. (2015) using reconstructed male counts, and Coates et al. (2020) using multiple data sources for the IPM, including demographic and lek count data. Thus, even though some populations in this most recent model have high probabilities of extirpation over the next ten years, the DPS as a whole is likely to persist over this time period. These extinction probabilities are created from continuing and forecasting past trends into the future, and thus likely do not reflect the effects of conservation measures started or completed in recent years. Finally, the most recent population study included a PMU distribution analysis to examine short-term changes in population distribution across the BiState DPS. This analysis concluded that some parts of the Bi-State DPS are contracting, with the greatest contractions in acres of occupied habitat occurring in the Pine Nut, Fales, Sagehen, and White Mountains populations (Coates et al. 2020, p. 51– 54). However, distributional area in the Bodie Hills is increasing (Coates et al. 2020, p. 54). As a whole, the Bi-State DPS showed some evidence of range contraction between 2008 and 2018, though the 95 percent CRI overlapped zero ((¥0.07 [¥0.19, 0.07]) (Coates et al. 2020, p. 51). Following are brief accounts of each PMU. (1) The Pine Nut PMU has the fewest sage-grouse (Median = 33; CRI = 0–73 individuals in 2018; Coates et al. 2020, p. 33) and the least number of active leks of the Bi-State PMUs. The population in the Pine Nut PMU has some level of connectivity with the Desert Creek-Fales PMU and potentially also with the Bodie and Mount Grant PMUs. The most significant impacts in this PMU are wildfire, invasive species, woodland encroachment, urbanization, and infrastructure. Historically, a single lek in the northern portion of the Pine Nut Mountains (known as Mill Canyon Dry Lake) was the only known consistently active lek in this PMU. From 2000 through 2013, the average male attendance at the Mill Canyon Dry Lake lek was approximately 14 males (BiState TAC 2012, p. 17). Since 2013, activity on this lek has essentially ceased. An additional lek in the southern extent of the Pine Nut PO 00000 Frm 00009 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18061 mountain range has periodically been reported but at this point is not considered active. Aerial surveys over the past few years typically detect birds in this area but actual strutting activity is uncertain. It is unclear if this southern lek has been abandoned, or if the original documentation just captured a rare event or simply misclassified random bird sightings for actual strutting activity. Over the past several years, two newly discovered lek sites in the Buckskin Range appear to be the only reliably active strutting grounds in this PMU (NDOW 2018, unpublished data). Both lek sites are small with two to five males apiece. The most recent results from the IPM suggests population growth in this PMU has declined on average six percent annually over the past decade (2008– 2018; Median l = 0.835; CRI = 0.234– 1.94; Coates et al. 2020, p. 41). Ongoing conservation efforts in this PMU include an acquisition of land containing high priority targets identified in the 2012 BSAP, which will help limit the effects of urban and exurban development. This 5,870 ha (14,500 ac) acquisition by the Carson City BLM has been approved and is anticipated to finalize in the spring of 2020. Other completed, ongoing, or planned conservation actions in the Pine Nut PMU include pinyon-juniper removal, horse gathers, removal of nonnative invasive plants, fuel reduction treatments, road closure, and fence removal (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire). (2) The Desert Creek-Fales PMU straddles the Nevada-California border and contains two populations, one in each State. This PMU includes two breeding complexes: Desert Creek (Nevada) and Fales (California). The populations in the Desert Creek-Fales PMU have some level of connectivity with the Pine Nut PMU and potentially also with the Bodie and Mount Grant PMUs. The most significant impacts in this PMU are wildfire, invasive species (specifically conifer encroachment), infrastructure, and urbanization. The NDOW uses data from six active leks to evaluate the trend and to tally maximum male attendance in the Desert Creek breeding complex. The long-term average male attendance is approximately 17.7 males per lek (BiState TAC 2017, p. 8). This average is influenced by one of these leks becoming inactive, with no males counted within the last 8 years. This lek might have moved locations, but this possibility remains unconfirmed. In 2012, a previously undocumented lek was discovered to the east of Nevada State Route 338 near Dalzell Canyon; 24 E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18062 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules males were documented strutting on this lek. Over the last 7 years, this lek has remained active but counts have been small (<5). Three additional lek sites have also been discovered over the past 5 years. The most recent results from the IPM suggest population growth in this PMU has declined in the past decade. Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 325 (CRI = 163– 542; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34) individuals. Estimated median population growth from 2001 through 2018 was 0.939 (CRI = 0.348–1.499) and from 2008 through 2018 was 0.938 (CRI = 0.337–1.535; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34). The Fales breeding complex is located in northern Mono County, California. It is composed of three active and three inactive leks. Two active leks are located near Sonora Junction, in proximity to the intersection of Highway 395 and California Highway 108, and one additional lek is located in the northeast corner of Mono County in the Sweetwater Mountains. No males have been documented on a previously occupied lek since possible activity in 2012 (CDFW 2014a, unpublished data; CDFW 2018, unpublished data). In 2018, peak male count on the two remaining leks was at a historic low of 16 males total. One of the two remaining leks may also potentially be affected by the recent Boot fire (2018) and the construction of a new outbuilding approximately 200 meters (218 yards) away. The most recent results from the IPM suggest population growth has been negative over the past decade, but evidence of decline is less robust than in other breeding areas, especially when considering the longer timeframes. Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 121 (CRI = 54– 208; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34) individuals. Estimated median lambda from 1995–2018 was 0.999 (CRI = 0.59– 1.641), from 2001–2018 was 0.984 (CRI = 0.539–1.525), and from 2008–2018 was 0.965 (CRI = 0.544–1.397; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34). Overall, the combined Desert Creek and Fales subpopulation has declined 4.5 percent annually over the past 18 years (Coates et al. 2020, Table 3). Completed, ongoing, and planned conservation measures in this PMU include pinyon-juniper removal, fence removal, road closures, livestock management (to reduce impacts to critical brood-rearing habitat), nonnative invasive plant removal, road closure, fence removal, and post-fire restoration (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire). (3) The Mount Grant PMU is composed of three connected areas: Two high-elevation areas associated with Aurora Peak and the Wassuk Range VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 (centered on Mount Grant), and one low-elevation area called Ninemile Flat (located in the East Fork Walker River valley) between the two high-elevation areas. This PMU is also connected with the Bodie PMU (a portion of the sagegrouse population in each PMU moves seasonally to the other). Surveys in the Mount Grant PMU have been sporadic due to difficulty accessing several locations and survey data collection has been influenced by apparent confusion over lek names and potential vagaries in lek locations. Woodland succession, and potentially to a lesser extent historical and current mining activity, has most negatively influenced bird distribution within the Mount Grant PMU (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 36–37). More recently, recreational OHV use has become a more prevalent activity under consideration for its influence on birds (Service 2020, p. 27). The largest known lek in the Mount Grant PMU is located near Aurora Peak along the Nevada-California border, and it is generally considered the eastern extension of the Bodie PMU breeding complex. The high count of 94 males for this lek was recorded in 2006, with a low of 10 in 2013. Over the past 5 years, peak male counts have ranged between 14 and 41 individuals (NDOW 2018, unpublished data). Leks in the Wassuk Range have not been surveyed consistently due to lack of access, which requires aerial survey methods. In 2005 and 2006, a total of 19 and 33 males, respectively, were counted on five active leks in the Wassuk Range (NDOW 2009, unpublished data; Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 35). During 2012, on four leks surrounding Mount Grant, researchers counted a total of 139 birds (males and females) (BSLSP 2012, p. 13). In 2013, researchers counted 38 males on 3 leks, the largest of which contained 30 males, and over the past 4 years, total male counts have ranged between 8 and 35 across 3 to 5 leks, with the largest lek containing 23 males. However, these results are calculated from limited data due to access limitations and survey method. The most recent results from the IPM suggest population growth in this PMU has generally been stable over the past decade, largely mirroring the pattern across the Bi-State DPS overall. Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 374 (CRI = 205– 619; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34) individuals. Estimated median lambda from 2008 through 2018 was 0.989 (CRI = 0.551–1.536; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34). Completed, ongoing, and planned conservation measures in this PMU include pinyon-juniper removal, sagebrush restoration, horse gathers (roundup and removal of wild horses on PO 00000 Frm 00010 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 public lands), road closures, and fence removal (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire). (4) The Bodie PMU contains one population (Bodie Hills), which is one of the two core (largest) populations for the Bi-State DPS. Most of the PMU is located to the east of Highway 395, but a small portion extends west of Highway 395 to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Loss of historical sagegrouse range in the Bodie PMU has been most influenced by woodland succession (The Nature Conservancy 2009, entire; Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 30; USGS 2012, unpublished data). Significant stands of pinyon pine and to a lesser extent juniper occur at mid to low elevations on all flanks of the Bodie Hills as well as across the Sierra Nevada Mountains side of the PMU. Perennial water and meadow habitats in the Bodie PMU are generally privately owned and provide important sage-grouse habitat during the brood-rearing/summer season. While natural vegetation succession processes (woodland establishment)—in the absence of disturbance—have resulted in loss of sagebrush habitat that continues to fragment and isolate the population within this PMU, the extent of habitat loss and fragmentation attributable to land use change (urban development and agricultural conversion) appears minimal. Approximately eight leks have been regularly surveyed in the Bodie PMU since the late 1980s with some locations being counted as far back as the 1950s. Additional active leks and numerous satellite leks (sites used sporadically in years of high sage-grouse abundance) have also been identified in the Bodie PMU. The majority of leks are located in the Bodie Hills east of Highway 395, but at least one long-term lek and several associated satellite leks occur west of the Highway. Since 1953, the long-term average total male attendance in the Bodie PMU is 192 (Bi-State TAC 2017, p. 11). The minimum count recorded was 64 males on 6 leks in 1998, and the maximum was 524 males on 14 leks in 2014. The sage-grouse population in the Bodie PMU has no discernible long-term trend (Garton et al. 2011, p. 324; referred to as the Mono Lake population). The average number of males per active lek declined by 41 percent between 1965 and 2007, but since 1991 the minimum number of males counted has been trending upward (Garton et al. 2011, p. 324). Recent survey years are encouraging because they demonstrate a substantial increase in the peaks associated with the population fluctuations. These increasing peaks, coupled with the E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules general increase in the number of males counted since the early 1990s, suggests the Bodie PMU may be moving toward a cycle that oscillates at generally higher numbers as compared to the other PMUs. The most recent results from the IPM suggest growth in this population has remained stable, with evidence of increase. Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 1,521 (CRI = 1,181–1,941; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34) individuals. Estimated median lambda from 1995 through 2018 was 1.07 (CRI = 0.76–1.758), from 2001 through 2018 was 1.029 (CRI = 0.74–1.457), and from 2008 through 2018 was 1.061 (CRI = 0.783–1.471; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34). Changes in population from 1995 through 2018 indicate that sage-grouse numbers as of 2018 were approximately four times higher compared to the low point 24 years ago (Coates et al. 2020, p. 34). Completed, ongoing, and planned conservation measures in this PMU include pinyon-juniper removal; conservation easements; fence modification and removal; road closure; post-fire rehabilitation; and sagebrush and brood-rearing habitat restoration (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire). (5) The South Mono PMU comprises three generally discrete locations or breeding complexes: Long Valley, Parker Meadow, and Granite Mountain. In the South Mono PMU, sage-grouse were likely historically distributed in many of the same areas utilized today (BSLPG 2004, p. 162), although there has been an estimated reduction in sagebrush extent of approximately 13 percent (USGS 2012, unpublished data) due to woodland succession. In addition, loss and fragmentation of habitat due to other causes (infrastructure, wildfire, and water development) has likely altered sagegrouse occurrence in certain locations such as the Mono Basin and Adobe Valley. In Long Valley, there may be specific locations where distribution has been reduced, but these areas appear limited in extent and confined to peripheral locations within the breeding complex. Changes in the sage-grouse population size in the Parker Meadow and Granite Mountain portions of the PMU are unclear, but likely greater. The Granite Mountain and Adobe Valley area (north of Highway 120) contains an expanse of sagebrush habitat and has been known to support birds during severe winters as well as historically (USFS 1966, p. 4; BSLPG 2004, p. 161). However, no consistent use of Adobe Valley is currently occurring, and use of the Granite Mountain area is limited. This inconsistent use is presumed to be caused by the general lack of water and VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 meadow habitat in the area, which has likely decreased in the past century. To the east of Adobe Valley in the vicinity of Pizona Creek, a potential connectivity corridor exists between populations in the South Mono and White Mountains PMUs. However, the vegetation within this corridor has apparently changed due to woodland succession, and an aerial survey suggests that current vegetation is not suitable sage-grouse habitat (BSLSP 2012, p. 36). Although surpassed by the Bodie PMU in 2012, traditionally the South Mono PMU has had the highest estimated population size as compared to the other PMUs within the range of the Bi-State DPS. The Long Valley breeding complex includes at least 10 to 12 consistently active leks and associated satellite sites located along the upper Owens River drainage and the Crowley Lake Basin. The Granite Mountain breeding complex includes two inactive leks located in the Adobe Valley and two active leks located in the Sagehen Summit area. The Parker Meadow breeding complex includes one consistently active lek site located south of Parker Creek at the northwest end of the June Lake Loop Road. Both the Granite Mountain and Parker Meadow breeding complexes are small, with generally less than 10 strutting males per complex documented per year. Long Valley represents the largest population in the South Mono PMU and, in conjunction with the Bodie PMU, these two PMUs represent the core populations of the Bi-State DPS. Sage-grouse have been counted in the Long Valley breeding complex since the early 1950s. Historical maximum male attendance counts occurred in 1962, 1963, 1986, and 2012 when 408, 405, 406, and 418 male were counted, respectively, on 6–7 leks (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 44). The long-term average peak male attendance between 1953 and 2018 is approximately 200, counted on an average of 9 leks. The high count during this period was 418 males in 2012, and the low count was 130 males in 2019 (CDFW 2019, unpublished data). The population in Long Valley has demonstrated positive and negative growth rates over the past 40 years (Garton et al. 2011, p. 329), although fluctuations have been relatively tempered and the population trend appears generally stable based on these data. The most recent results from the IPM suggest growth in this population has declined on average approximately four percent annually over the past decade, with more evidence of decrease than increase and apparently deviating from the remainder of the DPS. Estimated median population PO 00000 Frm 00011 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18063 abundance in 2018 was 818 (CRI = 614– 1,053; Coates et al. 2020, p. 35) individuals. Estimated median lambda from 1995 through 2018 was 0.996 (CRI = 0.676–1.427), from 2001 through 2018 was 0.986 (CRI = 0.655–1.433), and from 2008 through 2018 was 0.96 (CRI = 0.68–1.361; Coates et al. 2020, p. 35). Four leks are known to exist in the Granite Mountain breeding complex (Adobe, Gaspipe, Big Sand Flat, and Sagehen Summit). Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 20 individuals (CRI = 0–75; Coates et al. 2020, Table 1). Estimated median lambda from 1995 through 2018 was 0.916 (CRI = 0.282–1.964), from 2001 through 2018 was 0.844 (CRI = 0.18– 1.819), and from 2008 through 2018 was 0.834 (CRI = 0.222–1.658; Coates et al. 2020, Table 3). Sage-grouse have been known to occur in the Parker Meadow breeding complex area since the 1950s, although lek monitoring did not occur until 2002. One small lek is active, and on occasion, satellite sites have experienced strutting activity (CDFW 2012, unpublished data). Since 2002, a high count of 18 males occurred in 2018, and a low count of 3 males occurred in 2010 (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 45; CDFW 2018, unpublished data). The most recent results from the IPM suggest growth in this population is generally stable. Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 48 (CRI = 21– 86; Coates et al. 2020, Table 1) individuals. Estimated median lambda from 2001 through 2018 was 0.968 (CRI = 0.254–0.7.16), and from 2008 through 2018 was 1.048 (CRI = 0.361–5.814; Coates et al. 2020, Table 3). While growth in this population has little influence on the South Mono PMU as a whole, Parker Meadows likely facilitated connectivity between the Bodie and South Mono PMUs historically and potentially still does so today. In 2017, an experimental translocation program was initiated to bolster low numbers in the Parker Meadows population (Mathews et al. 2018, p. 7). Given its infancy, the efficacy of this program has not yet been determined. However, the recent high male lek count in 2018 (which excluded translocated males) offers some optimism as translocations in 2017 improved reproductive success and ultimately recruitment in 2018. Apart from the translocation, completed, ongoing, and planned conservation measures in this PMU include pinyon-juniper removal, land acquisition, road closures, landfill removal, and fence modification and removal (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire). E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18064 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules (6) The White Mountains PMU is the southernmost PMU in the Bi-State DPS, encompassing the White Mountains along the border of Nevada and California. It extends from the Candelaria Hills and Truman Meadows areas in the north to California Highway 168 in the south and from California Highway 6 in the west to the Silver Peak Range, Nevada, in the east. Historical and current distributions of sage-grouse in the White Mountains are not well understood. The area is difficult to access and, due to elevation, heavy snow conditions are typical during the spring breeding season. In addition, the number, size, and activity of leks in the White Mountains are not well known due to infrequent and opportunistic surveys. Historical accounts in Esmeralda County, Nevada, suggest bird densities there have likely always been low. Current impacts such as exurban development (e.g., Chiatovich Creek area (BSLSP 2012, p. 38)), grazing, recreation, and invasive species may be influencing portions of the population and are likely to increase in the future, but current impacts are considered minimal due to the remote locations of most known sage-grouse use areas. Potential future impacts from infrastructure (power lines, roads) and mineral developments could lead to fragmentation of the remote, contiguous nature of the habitat if conservation efforts were not conducted. There are currently two active leks in the Nevada portion of the White Mountains PMU. Both were discovered in 2012 and are relatively small with between zero and nine males documented per lek per year (NDOW 2018, unpublished data). Since 2016, no males have been detected at one of these sites. The most recent run of the IPM suggests more evidence of decline than increase, although this estimate is derived from fairly limited data. Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 45 (CRI = 9–86; Coates et al. 2020, p. Table 1) individuals. Estimated median lambda from 2008 through 2018 was 0.85 (CRI = 0.343–1.957; Coates et al. 2020, p. Table 3). Completed, ongoing, and planned conservation measures in this PMU include conservation easements and horse gathers (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire). Regulatory and Analytical Framework Regulatory Framework Section 4 of the Act (16 U.S.C. 1533) and its implementing regulations (50 VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 CFR part 424) set forth the procedures for determining whether a species is an ‘‘endangered species’’ or a ‘‘threatened species.’’ The Act defines an endangered species as a species that is ‘‘in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,’’ and a threatened species as a species that is ‘‘likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.’’ The Act requires that we determine whether any species is an ‘‘endangered species’’ or a ‘‘threatened species’’ because of any of the following factors: (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) Disease or predation; (D) The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence. These factors represent broad categories of natural or human-caused actions or conditions that could have an effect on a species’ continued existence. In evaluating these actions and conditions, we look for those that may have a negative effect on individuals of the species, as well as other actions or conditions that may ameliorate any negative effects or may have positive effects. We use the term ‘‘threat’’ to refer in general to actions or conditions that are known to or are reasonably likely to negatively affect individuals of a species. The term ‘‘threat’’ includes actions or conditions that have a direct impact on individuals (direct impacts), as well as those that affect individuals through alteration of their habitat or required resources (stressors). The term ‘‘threat’’ may encompass—either together or separately—the source of the action or condition or the action or condition itself. However, the mere identification of any threat(s) does not necessarily mean that the species meets the statutory definition of an ‘‘endangered species’’ or a ‘‘threatened species.’’ In determining whether a species meets either definition, we must evaluate all identified threats by considering the expected response by the species, and the effects of the threats—in light of those actions and conditions that will ameliorate the threats—on an individual, population, and species level. We evaluate each threat and its expected effects on the species, then analyze the cumulative effect of all of the threats on the species as a whole. PO 00000 Frm 00012 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 We also consider the cumulative effect of the threats in light of those actions and conditions that will have positive effects on the species, such as any existing regulatory mechanisms or conservation efforts. The Secretary determines whether the species meets the definition of an ‘‘endangered species’’ or a ‘‘threatened species’’ only after conducting this cumulative analysis and describing the expected effect on the species now and in the foreseeable future. Our proposed rule described ‘‘foreseeable future’’ as the extent to which we can reasonably rely on predictions about the future in making determinations about the future conservation status of the species. The Service since codified its understanding of foreseeable future in 50 CFR 424.11(d) (84 FR 45020). In those regulations, we explain the term ‘‘foreseeable future’’ extends only so far into the future as the Service can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are likely. The Service will describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis, using the best available data and taking into account considerations such as the species’ lifehistory characteristics, threat-projection timeframes, and environmental variability. The Service need not identify the foreseeable future in terms of a specific period of time. These regulations did not significantly modify the Service’s interpretation; rather they codified a framework that sets forth how the Service will determine what constitutes the foreseeable future based on our long-standing practice. Accordingly, though these regulations do not apply to this determination for the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse because it was proposed prior to their effective date, they do not change the Service’s assessment of foreseeable future for the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse as contained in our proposed rule and in this determination. Analytical Framework The Species Report documents the results of our comprehensive biological status review for the species, including an assessment of the potential threats to the species. The Species Report does not represent a decision by the Service on whether the species should be proposed for listing as an endangered or threatened species under the Act. It does, however, provide the scientific basis that informs our regulatory decisions, which involve the further application of standards within the Act and its implementing regulations and policies. The following is a summary of E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 the key results and conclusions from the Species Report; the full report can be found at either Docket No. FWS–R8– ES–2018–0106 or Docket No. FWS–R8– ES–2018–0107 on http:// www.regulations.gov. In this determination, we used the three conservation biology principles of resiliency, redundancy, and representation to assess the viability of the Bi-State DPS (Shaffer and Stein 2000, pp. 306–310). Briefly, resiliency supports the ability of the species to withstand environmental and demographic stochasticity (for example, wet or dry, warm or cold years), redundancy supports the ability of the species to withstand catastrophic events (for example, droughts, large pollution events), and representation supports the ability of the species to adapt over time to long-term changes in the environment (for example, climate changes). In general, the more resilient and redundant a species is and the more representation it has, the more likely it is to sustain populations over time, even under changing environmental conditions. Using these principles, we will consider the DPS’ overall response to threats and the DPS’ viability as a whole. Summary of Biological Status and Threats In this discussion, we review the biological condition of the species and its resources, the influence of those conditions on the species’ overall viability, and the risks to that viability. Following are summary evaluations of 11 threats analyzed in the Species Report for the Bi-State DPS: Urbanization and habitat conversion (Factor A); infrastructure (Factor A); mining (Factor A); grazing and rangeland management (Factor A); nonnative invasive plants and native woodland succession (Factor A); wildfires and altered fire regime (Factor A); climate change, including drought (Factor A); recreation (Factor E); disease (Factor C); predation (Factor C); and small population size and population isolation (Factor E). We also evaluate the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms (Factor D) on the magnitude of threats. Please see the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 39– 136) for a more detailed discussion of each threat. In the Species Report, we also considered four additional threats: Renewable energy (Factor A), commercial and recreational hunting (Factor B); scientific and educational uses (Factor B); and contaminants (including pesticides) (Factor E). We concluded that though these threats are VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 currently having some impact on individual sage-grouse and their habitat, their overall effect now and into the future is expected to be minimal. Therefore, we will not present summary analyses of those threats in this document but will consider them in our overall conclusions of impacts to the species. For full descriptions of all these threats and how they impact the species, please see the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 63–124). For the purposes of this assessment, we consider the foreseeable future to be the amount of time on which we can reasonably determine a likely threat’s anticipated trajectory and the anticipated response of the species to those threats. For some threats impacting the Bi-State DPS, we consider the time for which we can reliably project threats and the anticipated response to be 30 years. This time period represents our best professional judgment of the foreseeable future conditions related to climate change, native woodland succession, nonnative invasive plants, and wildfire cycles, as well as the Bi-State DPS population cycles, probability of population persistence analyzed and described by Garton et al. (2015, entire), and regeneration time of sagebrush habitat. For other threats and the anticipated species response, we can reliably project impacts and the species response for less than 30 years, such as infrastructure, urbanization and habitat conversion, grazing and rangeland management, recreation, disease, and predation. Urbanization and Habitat Conversion Urbanization and habitat conversion (Factor A) have both direct and indirect effects on sagebrush habitat. In this section, we will discuss direct impacts to sagebrush habitat and to sage grouse populations. Indirect effects (such as those associated with infrastructure, increases in invasive plant species, and increases in domestic animals and wildlife predator species) will be addressed in later sections. Traditional land use in the Bi-State area was primarily farming and ranching operations. These operations can have both beneficial and detrimental effects on sage-grouse conservation. Continuing farming and ranching operations have limited development of exurban subdivisions in the Bi-State area, but they have also affected the extent of remaining sagebrush through conversion to alternate vegetation types (such as pasture grass) (Service 2020, p. 35). The extent of impacts from the conversion of habitat depends on the amount of PO 00000 Frm 00013 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18065 sagebrush lost, the type of seasonal habitat affected, and the arrangement of habitat lost (large blocks or small patches) (Knick et al. 2011, pp. 208– 211). While conversion of sagebrush vegetation communities to agricultural land continues to occur in the Bi-State area, the rate of this conversion remains difficult to quantify. Some reports state that conversion has lessened and that some of these lands are instead being sold and converted to low-density residential housing developments (BiState TAC 2012, pp. 18, 24, 41). Several studies have demonstrated that these increases in human population density could have strong effects on sage-grouse occupancy beyond the areas directly converted to human development. Sagegrouse extirpation was more likely in areas having a human population density of at least four people per 1 km2 (10 people per 1 mi2) (Aldridge et al. 2008, pp. 991–992). Increase in human populations from this moderate level did not infer a greater likelihood of extirpation, likely because much of the additional growth occurred in areas no longer suitable for sage-grouse (Aldridge et al. 2008, pp. 991–992). Additionally, human density is 26 times greater in extirpated sage-grouse areas than in the currently occupied range (Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 463). In modeling several measures of human population on greater sage-grouse persistence, including current population density, historical population density, and human population growth, the best predictor of sage-grouse extirpation was human population density in 1950 (Aldridge et al. 2008, p. 985). This finding suggests that human development has had long-term impacts on habitat suitability and sage-grouse persistence (Aldridge et al. 2008, pp. 991–992). Thus, even small increases in human population density can have a strong effect on sage-grouse populations. Another indicator of human development pressure on sage-grouse can be inferred from existing sagebrush availability. To persist in an area, sagegrouse require a minimum of 25 percent sagebrush; a high probability of persistence required 65 percent sagebrush or more (Aldridge et al. 2008, p. 990; and Chambers et al. 2014, p. 12). When data were analyzed in 2014 across the Bi-State, no leks contained less than 25 percent sagebrush cover in the immediate area. However, 30 out of the 55 leks (55 percent) contained between 25 and 65 percent sagebrush cover, suggesting an intermediate probability of persistence (Chambers et al. 2014, p. 12). The remaining 25 leks (45 percent) E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18066 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules contained greater than 65 percent sagebrush cover surrounding a lek site. Historical and recent alterations, as well as ongoing conversion of sagebrush vegetation to support ranching operations and urban/exurban expansion, poses the greatest risk to persistence of sage-grouse in the Pine Nut, Desert Creek-Fales, and South Mono PMUs and to a lesser degree in the Bodie, and White Mountains PMUs (BSLPG 2004, pp. 24–169; Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 18–46). Approximately 11 percent of suitable sage-grouse habitat in the Bi-State area occurs on private lands. In each PMU, sage-grouse home ranges include private lands that are critical to fulfilling annual habitat needs (Casazza 2009, p. 9), including a significant proportion of mesic areas (e.g., upland meadows) within the range of the Bi-State DPS needed by sagegrouse during the late brood-rearing period. Sage-grouse are known to display strong site fidelity to traditional seasonal habitats, and loss or degradation of specific sites (especially brood-rearing habitat) can have negative population impacts. The majority of local agency land in the South Mono PMU is owned by the City of Los Angeles and managed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Many of these parcels are irrigated pasture, which provide important brood-rearing habitat to upwards 40 percent of the entire BiState DPS population. The LADWP is considering altering the extent to which these lands are irrigated. If realized, this potential additive stressor has the potential to negatively affect broodrearing success (an influential demographic vital rate), given that the Long Valley population has demonstrated slightly negative population growth on average over the past 10 years. To address this concern, in 2019 LADWP provided a letter to the Service that reaffirms its prior commitment to allocate a sufficient amount of water to maintain sage-grouse habitat in Long Valley. Determining the amount of water needed to achieve this commitment will be informed by a collaborative, science-based approach (LADWP 2019, in litt.). The goal of LADWP’s natural resource management is to employ Best Management Practices for land and water uses that maintain water supplies to the City of Los Angeles while protecting water quality, habitat, biodiversity, as well as species recognized under the ESA throughout the related watersheds. In 2014 (August 18, 2014), LADWP and their governing Board of Water and Power Commission approved a Conservation Strategy for the Bi-State DPS on their lands in Mono VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 County, California. A component of this Strategy included commitments to maintain sage-grouse lekking, nesting, and brood rearing habitat. Consistent with this Strategy, LADWP has consistently managed the activities on their lands such as habitat restoration, livestock grazing, recreation, control of noxious and invasive weeds, fire suppression, infrastructure, and management of water in a manner that is compatible with the conservation of the Bi-State DPS. These past efforts and ongoing commitments will continue to provide benefits to conservation of the species. The remainder of private lands in the South Mono PMU is rangeland, although potential for commercial, residential, or recreational development exists. Ongoing efforts to develop fee acquisition of properties or enroll them into conservation easements may help ameliorate current and anticipated effects of urbanization and habitat conversion. We estimate that approximately 10,415 ha (25,737 ac) of private land, which may provide suitable habitat for sage-grouse in the Bi-State DPS, are currently enrolled in various easement programs. The easements are targeted primarily at development and water rights and vary in length from 30 years to in perpetuity; thus, they can ameliorate the threat of development but do not necessarily ensure that habitat remains suitable. The majority of these easement lands are located in the Bodie PMU, with the remainder of easements occurring in the Desert Creek-Fales, South Mono, Pine Nut, and White Mountains PMUs. Of the approximately 60,326 ha (149,071 ac) of private land that may provide suitable habitat for sage-grouse within the Bi-State area, approximately 17 percent is under easements. An additional approximate 9,045 ha (22,352 ac) of previously private land within the Bi-State DPS has been acquired by State and Federal agencies over the past decade. In total, approximately 19,460 ha (48,089 ac) of land, either through conservation easements or acquisitions, has been substantially protected from urbanization challenges. These acres represent approximately 31 percent of total private lands containing suitable sage-grouse habitat across the Bi-State area. In addition, approximately 7,280 ha (18,000 ac) of lands identified as important by the 2012 BSAP have funding obligated and are working through the easement development process, with many of these efforts anticipated to be completed in a few years. An effort to acquire approximately 5,867 ha (14,500 ac) of PO 00000 Frm 00014 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 additional lands in the Pine Nut PMU by the Carson City BLM has been approved but will likely not finalize until sometime in 2020. Combining the realized and reasonably anticipated efforts, approximately 57 percent of high-priority private lands in the BiState area will be protected. Currently, 89 percent of the Bi-State DPS is Federal lands. On Federal lands, existing regulatory mechanisms protect sagebrush habitat from development. Approximately 54 percent of all lands within the sage-grouse Bi-State area is BLM-administered land; this includes approximately 1 million ha (2.5 million ac). The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (43 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) is the primary Federal law governing most land uses on BLM lands, and directs development and implementation of resource management plans (RMPs) that direct management at a local level. The sagegrouse is designated as a sensitive species on BLM lands in the Bi-State area (Sell 2010, pers. comm.). The BLM’s objectives for sensitive species is two-fold: (1) To conserve and recover ESA-listed species and the ecosystem on which they depend so that ESA protections are no longer needed, and (2) to initiate proactive conservation measures that reduce or eliminate threats to species to minimize the likelihood of and need for listing of these species under the ESA (BLM 2008, p. 3). The USFS manages approximately 35 percent of the land in the Bi-State area or approximately 600,000 ha (1.5 million ac). Management of activities on national forest system lands is guided principally by the National Forest Management Act (NFMA). The NFMA specifies that the USFS must have a land resource management plan (LRMP) (16 U.S.C. 1600) to guide and set standards for natural resource management activities on each National Forest or National Grassland. The greater sage-grouse is designated as a USFS Sensitive Species in the Intermountain (R4) and Pacific Southwest (R5) Regions, which includes the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest (Bridgeport and Carson Ranger Districts) and the Inyo National Forest in the BiState area. Designated sensitive species require special consideration during land use planning and activity implementation to ensure the viability of the species on USFS lands and to preclude any population declines that could lead to a Federal listing (USFS 2008, p. 21). In addition, sensitive species designations require analysis for any activity that could have an adverse impact to the species, including analysis E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules of the significance of any adverse impacts on the species, its habitat, and overall population viability (USFS 2008, p. 21). The specific protection that sensitive species status confers to sagegrouse on USFS lands is largely dependent on LRMPs and site-specific project analysis and implementation. These regulatory mechanisms prevent urban development on Federal lands. Through NFMA, LRMPs, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, RMPs, and the On-Shore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act (1987; implementing regulations at 36 CFR part 228, subpart E), land-managing agencies have the authority to manage, prevent, restrict, or attach protective measures to mineral extraction, wind development, and other energy permits on Federal lands. Thus, some habitat loss due to these developments may still occur on Federal land. Despite this, regulatory mechanisms in place are overall reducing the magnitude of threats associated with urbanization and habitat conversion. Historical and recent conversion of sagebrush habitat on private lands for agriculture, housing, and associated infrastructure within the Bi-State area has likely negatively affected sagegrouse distribution and population extent in the Bi-State DPS, thus potentially influencing current and future recovery opportunities in the BiState area. These alterations to habitat have been most pronounced in the Pine Nut and Desert Creek-Fales PMUs and to a lesser extent in the Bodie, South Mono, and White Mountains PMUs. Although only a subset of the 11 percent of suitable sage-grouse habitat that occurs on private lands could potentially be developed, conservation actions on adjacent public lands could be compromised due to the significant percentage of late brood-rearing habitat that occurs on the private lands. Furthermore, the influence of land development and habitat conversion on the population dynamics of sage-grouse is greater than a simple measure of spatial extent because of the indirect effects from the associated increases in human activity. These threats are not universal across the Bi-State area, but localized areas of impacts have been realized and additional future impacts are anticipated. Currently, approximately 31 percent of total private lands containing suitable sagegrouse habitat across the Bi-State area are enrolled under an easement program or have been acquired by Federal and State agencies, and this number will increase to 57 percent when combining additional efforts that are ongoing and reasonably likely to occur. VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 Urbanization was not considered a significant threat at the time of the 2013 proposed listing rule. Currently, the effects of urbanization are having a minimal impact on the resiliency of populations within the Bi-State DPS. Absent any protections or conservation measures, the magnitude of impacts could increase into the foreseeable future as unprotected private lands become further fragmented. However, due to protections associated with regulatory mechanisms, and in particular because of efforts to acquire important private lands associated with the BSAP, we conclude that the magnitude of effects associated with this threat and its potential impacts on population resiliency should not increase to a detrimental level. The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter effects such as urbanization and habitat loss. Because we have determined that the partially completed and future conservation measures/efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, above), we believe that urbanization and human disturbance is not a significant impact on the species within the foreseeable future. Infrastructure We characterize infrastructure as features that assist or are required for human development or an associated action. We focus on five infrastructure features that are apparent in the Bi-State area and that have been implicated in impacting sage-grouse: Three linear features (roads, power lines, and fences) and two site-specific features (landfills and communication towers). Infrastructure can have direct impacts on sage-grouse, such as mortality through collision with power lines or fences, or direct impacts on sagebrush, such as habitat fragmentation or habitat loss. Fragmentation of sagebrush habitat has been cited as a primary cause of the decline of sage-grouse populations because the species requires large expanses of contiguous sagebrush (Service 2020, p. 45). Estimating the impact of habitat fragmentation caused by infrastructure on sage-grouse is complicated by the nonrandom placement of these features and by time lags in species response to habitat changes (Garton et al. 2011, p. 371), particularly since these relatively longlived birds continue to return to altered breeding areas (leks, nesting areas, and early brood-rearing areas). Roads are a linear feature on the landscape that can contribute to habitat loss and avoidance of areas close to PO 00000 Frm 00015 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18067 roads, create barriers to migration corridors or seasonal habitats, and increase human disturbance in remote areas (Service 2020, p. 46). Additionally, roads can provide corridors for predators to move into previously unoccupied areas. For some mammalian and avian species (such as common ravens (Corvus corax)), dispersal along roads and other linear features like power lines has greatly increased their distribution (Forman and Alexander 1998, p. 212; Knight and Kawashima 1993, p. 268; Forman 2000, p. 33; Connelly et al. 2004, p. 12–3). Road networks also contribute to the spread of nonnative invasive plants via introduced road fill, vehicle transport, and road maintenance activities (Forman and Alexander 1998, p. 210; Forman 2000, p. 32; Gelbard and Belnap 2003, p. 426; Knick et al. 2003, p. 619; Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7–25). Direct mortality of sage-grouse from vehicle collisions does occur (Patterson 1952, p. 81; Wiechman and Reese 2008, p. 3), but mortalities are typically not monitored or recorded. Additionally, roads can have impacts on sage-grouse behavior. For example, roads within 7.5 km (4.7 mi) of leks negatively influence male lek attendance (Service 2020, pp. 46–47). The mechanism by which road presence reduces male lek attendance is not entirely clear, but chronic noise may contribute to these decreases. Male sagegrouse rely on acoustical signals to attract females to leks (Gibson and Bradbury 1985, p. 82; Gratson 1993, p. 692). Therefore, if noise interferes with mating displays, and thereby female attendance, younger males will not be drawn to the lek and eventually leks could become inactive (Amstrup and Phillips 1977, p. 26; Braun 1986, pp. 229–230). In general, locations associated with mineral development (Mount Grant PMU), recreational activity (Bodie and South Mono PMUs), and major travel corridors (Desert Creek-Fales PMU) have the most significant daily road traffic. Our analysis of the best available data in the Bi-State area documents that 54 out of 55 known active or pending leks are within 3 km (1.8 mi) or less of an existing minor road (such as dirt twotrack roads). Furthermore, of the 55 known active or pending leks, 64 percent (n=35) are within 5 km (3.1 mi) of paved secondary highways (Service 2013c, unpublished data). An extensive network of roads and trails currently occurs throughout the range of the Bi-State DPS. In the Bi-State area, all Federal lands have restrictions limiting off-road vehicular travel. In addition, road closures and E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18068 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules rehabilitation of redundant roads by USFS and BLM are occurring to benefit Bi-State DPS conservation (Service 2020, p. 49). We anticipate limited additional road and trail development will occur within suitable and potentially suitable habitat in the Bi-State area based on recent land use plan amendments, USFS and BLM travel management plans, and our current understanding of travel management direction. However, because an extensive road and trail network already occurs throughout the Bi-State area and because roads are known to result in both direct and indirect impacts to sage-grouse, we anticipate some impacts to birds and leks in the future, although we are uncertain to what degree these potential impacts will affect populations in the Bi-State area. Power lines can directly affect sagegrouse by posing collision and electrocution hazards (Braun 1998, pp. 145–146; Connelly et al. 2000a, p. 974). They can have indirect effects by decreasing lek recruitment, increasing predator presence, facilitating the invasion of nonnative invasive annual plants by creating soil conditions favorable to their spread, potentially acting as a barrier to movement, and ultimately negatively affecting population performance (Service 2020, pp. 50–52). Due to the potential spread of invasive species and facilitation of predator occurrence as a result of power line construction, the indirect influence power lines can have on vegetation community dynamics and species occurrence often extends out further than the physical footprint (Knick et al. 2011, p. 219). Recent research has demonstrated that power lines are influencing sage-grouse behavior, demographic vital rates, and population growth rates due to associated impacts from raven abundance and predation (Gibson et al. 2018, p. 17). Power lines occur in all Bi-State PMUs, but the extent of exposure varies by location. Based on available data (generally restricted to transmission lines), we estimate approximately 210 km (130 mi) of existing power lines are present across suitable habitat in the BiState. Overall, approximately 21 percent of 55 active and pending leks in the BiState area are within 2 km (1.2 mi) or less of existing transmission lines and approximately 38 percent of active and pending leks are within 5 km (3.1 mi) or less of existing transmission lines (Service 2013c, unpublished data). This suggests a potential loss, due to sagegrouse avoidance, of approximately 25,200 ha (62,270 ac) of otherwise suitable habitat (Gillan et al. 2013, p. VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 307). These transmission lines have the potential to further negatively influence over 250,000 ha (617,700 ac) or approximately 47 percent of suitable habitat, assuming their presence leads to the increased presence of ravens and other predators (Gibson et al. 2018, p. 17). Given that the predator community population size likely fluctuates through time, the scale of this potential impact will likely vary. Therefore, we are uncertain to what degree these potential impacts will affect populations in the Bi-State area. Of ongoing concern, however, is the potential time lag in effects from construction of power lines, as ravens and other predators may not utilize those lines until several years after their construction. We anticipate that while existing power lines will persist on the landscape in the future, new power lines will be limited to smaller distribution lines associated with expansion of urbanization on a portion of the private lands within and around the Bi-State area. Bi-State habitat is currently managed as a right-of-way avoidance area by Federal land managers, such that larger lines (>120 kilovolts) and associated facilities will not be authorized (outside of existing corridors; BLM 2016, p. 15; HTNF 2016, p. 13). In the Bodie PMU, one decommissioned power line has been removed (Bi-State TAC 2018). Fences are used to delineate property boundaries and for livestock management (Braun 1998, p. 145; Connelly et al. 2000a, p. 974). The effects of fencing on sage-grouse include direct mortality through collisions, creation of predator perch sites, and habitat fragmentation (Service 2020, p. 55). Fences present a risk to sage-grouse in all Bi-State PMUs (BSLPG 2004, pp. 54, 80, 120, 124, 169) due to known fence collisions and their potential to degrade habitat quality. Not all fences present the same direct mortality collision risk to sage-grouse. Collision risk factors include fencing design, landscape topography, and spatial relationship with seasonal habitats (Christiansen 2009, p. 2). Management methods can decrease the impact of fences on sage-grouse. Visual markers have been employed in some of the high-risk areas to make fences more readily seen by birds; this method does appear to substantially reduce mortality due to collisions. Markers have been installed on a total of approximately 101 km (63 mi) of fence across the Bi-State DPS since 2012. Recent land use plan amendments encourage evaluation of existing fences with respect to sagegrouse conservation and discourage new installations that may negatively affect PO 00000 Frm 00016 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 sage-grouse and its habitat (BLM 2016, pp. 12, 15; HTNF 2016, p. 14). Data on the total extent (length and distribution) of existing fences and new fence construction projects are not available for the Bi-State area. However, based on data contained within the Greater Sage-grouse Bi-State Distinct Population Segment Forest Plan Amendment (USFS and BLM 2014, p. 99), there is likely on the order of 650 km (400 mi) of existing fences across the entire DPS. While we expect fencing to continue and possibly expand in the future within every PMU in the Bi-State area, efforts associated with conservation and regulatory mechanisms are currently ongoing (and expected to continue into the future) to ameliorate some of their impacts (BiState TAC 2012, p. 5; BLM 2016, pp. 12, 15; HTNF 2016, p. 14). While direct mortality through collision may be minimized by these approaches, indirect impacts caused by predation and other forms of habitat degradation may remain. The overall severity of these impacts to the Bi-State DPS throughout its range is not known, but based on the best available data the impacts are widespread but minor. Millions of birds are killed annually in the United States through collisions with communication towers (including cellular towers) and their associated structures (e.g., guy wires, lights) (Shire et al. 2000, p. 5; Manville 2002, p. 10), although most documented mortalities are of migratory songbirds. In a comparison of sage-grouse locations in extirpated areas of their range (as determined by museum species and historical observations) and currently occupied habitats, proximity to cellular towers had a strong correlation with likelihood of extirpation, and the distance to cellular towers was nearly twice as far from grouse locations in currently occupied habitats than extirpated areas (Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 463). However, there was no information as to whether the towers were a factor in the extirpation of those areas, or if their presence was linked to other threats in those areas (Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 467). Within the range of the Bi-State DPS, approximately eight communication towers have been constructed in the past decade (Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 2018, unpublished data); each PMU has at least one such facility located within occupied sagegrouse habitat. These eight sites are likely an underrepresentation of the actual number of tower sites within the Bi-State area, as tower facilities shorter than 61 m (199 ft.) above ground level are not required to register with the FCC E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules (FCC 2018, unpublished data). We are unable to determine if any sage-grouse mortalities have occurred as a result of collisions with registered or unregistered communication towers or their supporting structures, as most towers are not monitored, and those that are monitored lie outside the range of the species (Kerlinger 2000, p. 2; Shire et al. 2000 p. 19). Based on regulatory mechanisms associated with existing land use plans as well as existing land designations (wilderness and wilderness study areas), which significantly restrict new communication site development, we do not expect many new facilities on federally managed land in the Bi-State area (BLM 1993, p. 18; BLM 2016, p. 13; HTNF 2016, pp. 42–43). However, we anticipate that existing communication towers will remain in place and potentially new communication towers will be added at existing tower sites. Typically, rights-of-way grants afforded these facilities are for 30 years, and would likely be renewed indefinitely. It is also probable that new communication towers will be developed on non-federally managed lands along existing Federal Highways and State Routes. Thus, future communication tower placements will most likely affect the Desert Creek-Fales and South Mono PMUs, potentially affecting sage-grouse habitat in those locations. Municipal solid waste landfills and associated roads contribute to increases in synanthropic predators (predator species adapted to conditions created or modified by people) (Knight et al. 1993, p. 470; Restani et al. 2001, p. 403; Webb et al. 2004, p. 523). One landfill exists in the Bi-State area. The Benton Crossing Landfill in Mono County is located north of Crowley Lake in Long Valley on a site leased from the LADWP. Common ravens and California gulls (Larus californicus) heavily use the landfill (Coates 2008, pers. comm.; USGS 2017, p. 17). Sage-grouse nest success in Long Valley (South Mono PMU) was lower than in other PMUs within the Bi-State area (Kolada et al. 2009b, p. 1344), which may be attributable to increased avian predators subsidized by landfill operations (Casazza 2008, pers. comm.; USGS 2017, p. 74; Coates et al.. 2018, p. 256). At this time, the future closing of the landfill appears probable, as LADWP has stated that they do not intend to renew the lease and Mono County has been funding planning studies for relocation, but any action on relocation is unlikely before the lease expires in 2023. In the Bi-State area, linear infrastructure impacts each PMU both VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 directly and indirectly to varying degrees. Existing roads, power lines, and fences may degrade sage-grouse habitat and contribute to direct mortality through collisions. In addition, roads, power lines, and fences influence sage-grouse use of otherwise suitable habitats adjacent to current active areas, increase predators, and increase invasive plants. The impact caused by these indirect effects extends beyond the immediate timeframe associated with the infrastructure installation. Across the entire range of the greater sage-grouse, the mean distance to highways and transmission lines for extirpated populations was approximately 5 km (3.1 mi) or less (Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 463). In the BiState area, 64 percent of active or pending leks are within 5 km (3.1 mi) of highways, and approximately 38 percent are within this distance to existing transmission lines (Service 2013c, unpublished data). The similarity apparent between these BiState DPS lek locations and extirpated greater sage-grouse populations suggests that persistence may be influenced by their juxtaposition with these anthropogenic features. The geographic extent, density, type, and frequency of linear infrastructure disturbance in the Bi-State area have changed over time. While new development of some of these features (highways) will likely not occur, other infrastructure features have the potential of increasing (secondary roads, power lines, fencing, and communication towers). Furthermore, while development of new highways is unlikely, road improvements are possible and traffic volume will likely increase, and in certain areas these actions may be more important than road development itself. We concluded in the 2013 proposed listing rule that infrastructure impacts (particularly fencing, power lines, and roads) were a significant factor for proposing to list the DPS as a threatened species, and today, we affirm that impacts from infrastructure occur in various forms throughout the Bi-State DPS’s range and are an ongoing threat impacting population resiliency across its range and degrading habitat both currently and into the future. This conclusion is based on a variety of range-wide impacts that are currently occurring and expected to continue or increase in the future that result in habitat fragmentation; limitations for sage-grouse recovery actions due to an extensive road network, power lines, and fencing; and a variety of direct and indirect impacts such as direct loss of individuals from collisions or structures PO 00000 Frm 00017 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18069 that promote increased potential for predation. Collectively, these threats may result in perturbations that influence both demographic vital rates of sage-grouse (e.g., reproductive success and adult sage-grouse survival) and habitat suitability in the Bi-State area. Importantly, conservation efforts that address infrastructure impacts have continued to be implemented since publication of the proposed listing rule, including (but not limited to): Removing power lines; implementing both permanent and seasonal road closures; removing racetrack fencing; and the likely relocation of the landfill in Long Valley. With continued implementation of conservation actions associated with the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), infrastructure-related impacts are significantly reduced. The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter negative effects from infrastructure. Because we have determined that the partially completed and future conservation efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe that effects associated with infrastructure may no longer be considered a significant impact into the future. Mining Surface and subsurface mining for mineral resources (gold, silver, aggregate, and others) can result in direct loss of sagebrush habitat. Construction of mining infrastructure can result in additional direct loss of habitat from establishment of structures, staging areas, roads, railroad tracks, and power lines. Sage-grouse and their nests could be directly affected by crushing or vehicle collision. Sage-grouse also can be impacted indirectly from an increase in human presence, land use practices, ground shock, noise, dust, reduced air quality, degradation of water quality and quantity, and changes in vegetation and topography (Moore and Mills 1977, entire). However, whereas theoretical effects are relatively clear and logical, information relating sage-grouse response to mineral developments is not extensive. Mineral development is classified as leasable (fluid) minerals (in the Bi-State area, this is limited to geothermal resource), saleable minerals (sand and gravel pits), and locatable minerals (precious metals). Through existing regulatory mechanisms, Federal managers have discretion to condition or deny proponents of leasable or saleable mineral projects, and existing E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18070 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules land use management plans have provisions that significantly restrict the likelihood of these developments (BLM 1993, p. 18; BLM 2016, pp. 12–13; HTNF 2016, pp. 19–21). Locatable minerals are administered under the General Mining Act of 1872. Federal land managers have very limited ability to prevent or preclude these activities from occurring. Mineral extraction has a long history throughout the Bi-State area. Mining continues today to a limited extent in all PMUs and is expected to continue into the future. Although mining occurs year-round in the Bi-State DPS, direct loss of key seasonal habitats or population disturbances during critical seasonal periods are of greatest impact. Currently, the PMUs with the greatest exposure are Bodie, Mount Grant, Pine Nut, and to a lesser degree South Mono (BSLPG 2004, pp. 89, 137, 178). There are currently several active Plans of Operations that overlap Bi-State sagegrouse habitat and thousands of active mining claims on Federal, State, and private lands. There is potential for additional mineral developments to occur in the Bi-State area in the future. While all PMUs have the potential for mineral development, based on current land designations and past activity, it appears the Pine Nut and Mount Grant PMUs are most likely to experience new activity (Service 2020, pp. 61–63). Currently operational mines are not within the core population areas of the Bi-State DPS, although existing inactive mining sites, exploration actions, and potential future developments could impact important lek complexes and population connectivity. In general, potential exists for mining operations to expand both currently and into the future, but the scope of impacts from existing mining expansion is not considered extensive. We concluded in the 2013 proposed listing rule and reaffirm here that, by itself, mining is not currently considered a significant impact to the Bi-State population, though mining exploration continues, and mining activity could occur at any time in the future. Conservation efforts that address the impacts from mining have continued to be implemented since publication of the proposed listing rule, such as reducing human-related disturbances (e.g., road noise/traffic). The BSAP includes conservation actions targeting development and human disturbances that will reduce the minor or potential impacts from mining (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire). Because we have determined that the partially completed and future conservation efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe impacts associated with mining in the Bi-State population area are not a reasonably anticipated concern into the future. Grazing and Rangeland Management Livestock grazing continues to be the most widespread land use across the sagebrush biome (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7–29; Knick et al. 2003, p. 616; Knick et al. 2011, p. 219), including within the Bi-State area. Links between grazing practices and population levels of sagegrouse are still not well defined (Braun 1987, p. 137; Connelly and Braun 1997, p. 231). Depending on timing and intensity, grazing can have both positive and negative impacts to greater sagegrouse populations. Sage-grouse populations responded favorably to higher grazing levels after peak vegetative productivity, but declined when grazed earlier (Monroe et al. 2017, p. 1102). Livestock grazing can reduce the available food sources needed during breeding and brood-rearing periods (Braun 1987, p. 137; Dobkin 1995, p. 18; Connelly and Braun 1997, p. 231; Beck and Mitchell 2000, pp. 998–1000). But while some studies have reported grass height as important for sage-grouse nesting habitat, others have reported weak or no effects, and other studies concluded no influential effects of grass-related variables on nesting success (Service 2020, pp. 65–66). In the Bi-State area, studies have suggested that grazing, or more importantly maintenance of residual grass cover, may not influence nest success in the Bi-State area as much as in other regions (Kolada et al. 2009b, pp. 1343–1344; Coates et al. 2017a, p. 55). This may be because the most prevalent nest predator in the Bi-State area, the common raven, is potentially less influenced by grass cover than mammalian predators (Coates et al. 2008, entire). Studies suggest that a threshold may exist whereby grazing can occur without detriment to sagegrouse resources. We note, however, the specifics of this threshold remain uncertain (Service 2020, p. 66). Potential negative effects of livestock grazing on the sagebrush ecosystem include reduced water infiltration rates, reduced cover of herbaceous plants and litter, compacted soils, and increased soil erosion (Braun 1998, p. 147; Dobkin et al. 1998, p. 213). These impacts change the proportions of shrubs, grasses, and forbs in affected areas, and increase the propensity for invasion by nonnative invasive plant species (Service 2020, p. 67). Additionally, as far back as the mid-1900s, livestock PO 00000 Frm 00018 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 grazing has been implicated in facilitating the spread of cheatgrass (Leopold 1949, p. 165; Billings 1951, p. 112). Livestock grazing reduces invasion resistance by imposing a competitive disadvantage on native herbaceous understory species and altering soil properties (Reisner et al. 2013, p. 10). While livestock grazing has been used strategically in sage-grouse habitat to control some invasive weeds (Merritt et al. 2001, p. 4; Olsen and Wallander 2001, p. 30; Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7– 49) and woody plant encroachment (Riggs and Urness 1989, p. 358), there is limited evidence that controlling established cheatgrass through grazing is feasible. Rest from grazing may, in fact, be a more effective strategy of building resistance to invasion into a site (Reisner et al. 2013, p. 10). Collectively, these studies suggest managed livestock grazing at moderate intensities in the Bi-State area may be benign or even beneficial to some seasonal sage-grouse habitats, but when grazing intensity exceeds this moderate use level, livestock grazing can have negative effects on sage-grouse habitat and individuals (Boyd et al. 2014, p. 60). Historically, extensive rangeland management has been conducted by Federal agencies and private landowners to reduce shrub cover and improve forage conditions for livestock in the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7–28; Knick et al. 2011, p. 220; Pyke 2011, p. 534). Today, ongoing removal or control of sagebrush in the Bi-State area is limited. The BLM and USFS have stated that, with rare exceptions, they no longer convert sagebrush to other habitat types, and that future treatments shall maintain, improve, or restore Bi-State sage-grouse habitat (BLM 2016, p. 11; HTNF 2016, p. 16). Federal land managers currently focus on improving the diversity of the native plant community, reducing conifer encroachment, or reducing the risk of large wildfires. On private lands in the Bi-State area, our understanding of sagebrush treatments is limited. Known instances of the elimination of sagebrush by chemical and mechanical means are apparent, but their extent remains to be quantified. The ability to restore or rehabilitate overgrazed areas depends on the condition of the area relative to its site potential (Knick et al. 2011, p. 232). Active restoration is required where the native understory is reduced (Pyke 2011, p. 539). If an area has soil loss or invasive species, returning the native plant community may be impossible (Daubenmire 1970, E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules p. 82; Knick et al. 2011, p. 232; Pyke 2011, p. 539). Infrastructure related to livestock management such as water developments (e.g., springs, tanks, guzzlers) and fences in shrub-steppe habitats are common on public lands (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7–35). Development of springs and other water sources can artificially concentrate domestic livestock and wild ungulates in mesic areas, thereby exacerbating grazing and trampling impacts to sagegrouse nesting and brood-rearing areas (Braun 1998, p. 147; Knick et al. 2011, p. 230). Diverting water sources can result in the loss of riparian or wet meadow habitat that sage-grouse depend upon as sources of forbs and insects. However, water developments can also be beneficial to sagebrush vegetation communities, as this practice can help distribute livestock to water troughs and away from riparian areas, minimizing concentrated impacts of livestock grazing. In the Bi-State area, there are 149 grazing allotments identified across all PMUs. Of these, 122 are considered active allotments, encompassing approximately 73 percent of suitable sage-grouse habitat. Most grazed lands are managed by the BLM and USFS, although much of the meadow habitats are located on private lands (BSLPG 2004, entire). Several rangeland health assessments (RHAs) or their equivalent have been completed on 120 allotments (104 that are active) and have not been conducted on the remaining 29 allotments (18 that are active). While there are public allotments or portions of allotments exhibiting adverse impacts from current or historical livestock grazing (e.g., vegetation condition or composition is generally less than desired), our understanding is the majority of allotments in the Bi-State area are in good condition (Axtell 2008, pers. comm.; Murphy 2008, pers. comm.; Nelson 2008, pers. comm. BLM 2014b, in litt.; Bi-State TAC 2017, pp. 31–33), and livestock grazing is generally thought to have a limited impact on sage-grouse habitat (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire). Livestock grazing will continue into the indefinite future within the Bi-State area at its current or slightly decreased level, and thus remain a discretionary action where Federal agencies have the ability to alter use when renewing grazing permits. Also, it appears that Federal land managers are moving in a direction that affords greater discretion to sage-grouse habitat needs when evaluating livestock management and the majority of allotments have or will have pending renewals and associated terms and VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 conditions that consider sage-grouse habitat, including the establishment or placement of infrastructure (Nelson 2008, pers. comm.; BLM 2016, pp. 11– 12; HTNF 2016, pp. 16–18). In addition to domestic livestock, feral horses can negatively impact meadows and brood-rearing habitats used by sage-grouse, and these impacts can be more severe given horses cannot be managed on a seasonal basis (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7–37; Crawford et al. 2004, p. 11). Horse presence may negatively affect sagebrush vegetation communities and habitat suitability for sage-grouse by decreasing grass cover, fragmenting shrub canopies, altering soil characteristics, decreasing plant diversity, and increasing the abundance of invasive cheatgrass. In areas utilized by both horses and cattle, it is unknown whether grazing impacts are synergistic or additive (Beever and Aldridge 2011, p. 286). The most substantial impacts from feral horses in the Bi-State area occur in the Pine Nut, Mount Grant, and White Mountains PMUs (Axtell 2008, pers. comm.; Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 19, 37, 41), although they are also known to occur within the Bodie and South Mono PMUs. We are unaware of the specific severity and scope of impacts caused by feral horses on the Bi-State DPS and sage-grouse habitat, although localized areas of concern in all PMUs are apparent. Most important are probable impacts to mesic areas within the Pine Nut, Mount Grant, and White Mountains PMUs. Management of herd size by Federal agencies is an ongoing challenge as horse management is expensive and often controversial. Based on this understanding, we anticipate future impacts caused by wild horses to increase, especially as horse herds are growing by 20 percent annually. However, despite this increase, the threat will have a minor impact on sagebrush habitat. Existing regulatory mechanisms such as BLM land management plans and USFS LRMPs further reduce the magnitude of threats associated with grazing and rangeland management. For example, the Central California Standards and Guidelines of the Bishop RMP provide additional direction for the management of permitted livestock grazing on public lands administered by the Bishop Field Office. Standards are set for soil, species, riparian, and water quality, and metrics by which the achievement of these standards could be measured were established. This enables BLM to manage livestock grazing to ensure that species such as sage-grouse are ‘‘healthy and in numbers that appear to ensure stable to increasing populations; habitat areas are PO 00000 Frm 00019 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18071 large enough to support viable populations or are connected adequately with other similar habitat areas.’’ Additionally, the Carson City District Land Use Plan Amendment for the Nevada and California Greater Sagegrouse Bi-State Distinct Population Segment addresses conservation of the Bi-State area by providing specific direction to management of the DPS and its habitat, including grazing management and wild horse and burro management (BLM 2016, entire). Numerous land use allocations restrict or substantially limit new habitat and bird disturbances and identify Best Management Practices to further minimize allowable actions. For more details on plans that address the impacts of grazing and rangeland management, see the Existing Regulatory Mechanisms of the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 124–136). Analyzing the overall impacts of grazing is difficult, as there is little direct evidence linking grazing effects and sage-grouse population responses. Analyses for grazing impacts at landscape scales important to sagegrouse are confounded by the fact that almost all sage-grouse habitat has at one time been grazed and thus no ungrazed control areas exist for comparisons (Knick et al. 2011, p. 232). Overall, impacts from historic grazing and current rangeland management occur within localized areas throughout the Bi-State DPS’s range, though it is more pronounced in some PMUs than others. Domestic livestock and feral horses have the potential to negatively affect sagegrouse habitats by decreasing grass cover, fragmenting shrub canopies, altering soil characteristics, decreasing plant diversity, and increasing the abundance of invasive plant species, although their impacts and management potential can differ. Grazing and domestic livestock management has the potential to result in sage-grouse habitat degradation, though there is some conflicting information on whether some of the impacts of grazing are positive or negative. The Pine Nut and Mount Grant PMUs may be most sensitive to impacts from grazing as both PMUs are generally lower in elevation and receive less precipitation, making their sagebrush habitat less resistant to withstanding changes. Across the remainder of the PMUs, localized areas of meadow degradation are apparent, and these conditions may influence sage-grouse populations, as meadows are essential for recruitment of young. Overall, impacts from past grazing and rangeland management occur within localized areas in all PMUs, E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 18072 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 although impacts are more pronounced in some PMUs than others. We concluded in the 2013 proposed listing rule that grazing and rangeland management was a factor (albeit not significant) for proposing to list the DPS as a threatened species as a result of ongoing habitat degradation impacts that may affect sage-grouse habitat in the Bi-State area, resulting in an overall reduction in aspects of habitat quality (e.g., fragmentation, lack of understory plants, increased presence of nonnative plant species), especially in the Pine Nut and Mount Grant PMUs. While we recognize that livestock and feral horses may negatively impact sage-grouse habitat, we affirm that it does not appear that this is a significant concern in the Bi-State area today. Importantly, conservation efforts that address the impacts from grazing and rangeland management have continued to be implemented since publication of the proposed listing rule, including (but not limited to): (1) Completing drafts and beginning to implement the new BLM and USFS Land Use Plan amendments (U.S. Department of the Interior and USDA 2015, entire), which are a considerable improvement for conservation of the Bi-State DPS and its habitat; repairing watering facilities, irrigation structures, and fencing around natural riparian areas to control grazing activity; increasing monitoring and management of horse and burrow herds; and restoring meadow/riparian habitat in critical brood-rearing habitat areas. With continued implementation of conservation actions associated with the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), impacts from grazing and rangeland management are significantly reduced. The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter effects such as livestock and wild horse grazing. Because we have determined that the partially completed and future conservation efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe impacts associated with grazing and rangeland management are not a concern now or in the foreseeable future. Nonnative Invasive Plants and Native Woodland Succession Shifting vegetation communities within the Bi-State area are altering sagebrush habitat that supports sagegrouse. Nonnative invasive plants such as cheatgrass alter sagebrush community structure, composition, productivity, nutrient cycling, and hydrology (Vitousek 1990, p. 7). Nonnative plants may also cause declines in native plant VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 populations through mechanisms such as competitive exclusion and niche displacement (Mooney and Cleland 2001, p. 5446). They can create longterm changes in ecosystem processes, such as altering fire cycles and other disturbance regimes; these changes can persist even after an invasive plant is removed (Zouhar et al. 2008, p. 33). Nonnative plants degrade existing sage-grouse habitat, replacing vegetation essential to sage-grouse for food and cover (Connelly et al. 2000a, pp. 971– 972; Miller et al. 2011, pp. 160–164). The presence of cheatgrass influences lek persistence, nest site selection, and ultimately population performance (Blomberg et al. 2012, p. 7; Knick et al. 2013, p. 1544; Lockyer et al. 2015, p. 791; Coates et al. 2016b, p. 12747). Nonnative plants affect sage-grouse habitat and population demographics both in the short term (e.g., nest site selection, loss of forbs and associated insects) and in the long term (e.g., population growth, sagebrush displacement and habitat fragmentation). A variety of nonnative invasive plants are present within the Bi-State area, although cheatgrass is of greatest concern. Local managers and scientists consider cheatgrass to be a low-level threat across four PMUs (White Mountains, South Mono, Bodie, and Desert Creek-Fales), a moderate threat in the Mount Grant PMU, and a high threat in the Pine Nut PMU (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 19, 26, 32, 37, 41, 49). Areas of greatest concern are in the Pine Nut PMU where cheatgrass abundance is greatest and where there are restoration challenges following several recent wildfires. Averaged across the entire BiState, percent cover of cheatgrass is generally low (Peterson 2003, entire), and conversion to an annual grass dominated community is currently limited to only a few locations. Anecdotal reports suggest this assessment remains generally true, though it is apparent that the abundance and distribution of cheatgrass has increased over the past decade. Efforts are ongoing to restore or rehabilitate sage-grouse habitat affected by nonnative plant species, but the techniques for accomplishing these efforts remain mostly unproven, experimental, and often logistically difficult (Pyke 2011, pp. 543–544). Regardless, restoration efforts such as localized weed treatments have been applied within all the Bi-State PMUs. Based on our understanding and past experience with nonnative invasive species in the Great Basin Region, we anticipate that impacts from nonnative species will continue or increase into PO 00000 Frm 00020 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 the future. According to a mapping of sagebrush habitats across the range of greater sage-grouse that categorized these habitats based on their resistance and resilience to disturbance, both resistance and resilience are low in the warm and dry sagebrush habitats contained within the Nevada portion of the Bi-State (Pine Nut, Mount Grant, and Desert Creek portion of the Desert Creek–Fales PMUs) and most of the South Mono PMU (Chambers et al. 2014, pp. 16–17). That is, these areas have lower productivity and higher susceptibility to cheatgrass or other invasive annual grass incursion and will therefore face greater restoration challenges should fire occur. In the wetter and cooler sagebrush habitats found in the White Mountains, Bodie, Fales portion of the Desert Creek—Fales PMUs, and high-elevation sites of the Mount Grant PMU, resilience and resistance were ranked as moderately high to high, implying these locations have greater productivity and are generally less suitable to invasive annual grass establishment (Chambers et al. 2014, p. 43). In addition to nonnative plant invasions within sagebrush habitat, some native tree species are increasing in sagebrush habitat and impacting the suitability of the habitat for the various life processes of the sage-grouse. Pinyon-juniper woodlands are a native vegetation community that can encroach upon, infill, and eventually replace sagebrush habitat. The cause of this conversion from shrubland to woodland is debatable but may be due to a suite of causes acting in concert with active wildfire suppression including: Domestic livestock grazing (reduced competition from native grasses and forbs and facilitation of tree regeneration by increased shrub cover and enhanced seed dispersal), climatic fluctuations favorable to tree regeneration, enhanced tree growth due to increased water use efficiency associated with carbon dioxide fertilization, and recovery from past disturbance (natural and anthropogenic) (Miller et al. 2008, p. 10; Baker 2011, p. 200; Miller et al. 2011, pp. 167–169; Bukowski and Baker 2013, p. 560). Each of these factors have likely influenced the current pattern of vegetation in the Bi-State area today and have led to an estimated 40 percent decline in sagebrush extent due to woodland succession and isolation of sage-grouse populations across the DPS. Land managers in the Bi-State area consider pinyon-juniper encroachment a substantial threat to sage-grouse because it impacts habitat quality, quantity, and connectivity, and E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules increases the risk of avian predation to sage-grouse populations (BSLPG 2004, pp. 20, 39, 96; Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 18–47). Previously occupied sage-grouse locations throughout the Bi-State area are thought to have been abandoned due to woodland succession (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 18–47). The extent of the conversion to pinyon-juniper woodland varies by PMU, with the South Mono PMU being the least impacted (approximately 13 percent loss) and the Pine Nut PMU being the most influenced (approximately 50 percent loss). The remainder of the PMUs (White Mountains, Mount Grant, Desert Creek-Fales, and Bodie) are each estimated to have experienced approximately a 40 percent loss of historical sagebrush vegetation to woodland succession. In total, over the past 150 years, an estimated 390,000 ha (963,000 ac) of sagebrush habitat has converted to woodland vegetation, resulting in a loss of availability of total sagebrush habitat in the Bi-State area (which is not synonymous with suitable sage-grouse habitat as presented in Table 1) from slightly over 1,000,000 ha (2,580,000 ac) in 1850 to approximately 650,000 ha (1,600,000 ac) today across the Bi-State DPS (USGS 2012, unpublished data). In order to counter the impact of pinyon-juniper encroachment, treatments to thin or remove woodland species are ongoing. Recent research supports previous assertions that these treatments would expand sage-grouse habitat and ultimately be used successfully by birds (Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63; Severson et al. 2017, p. 53; Olsen 2019, pp. 21–22). Sage-grouse response to woodland encroachment has been negative to the incursion but in some instances responsive to treatment actions. Sage-grouse encountering pinyon-juniper communities coupled with the rate of movement through these communities negatively affected bird survival (Prochazka et al. 2017, p. 46); however, sage-grouse readily nested in conifer treatment sites after trees had been removed (Severson et al. 2017, p. 53). Woodland treatments increased suitable available breeding habitat and enhanced nest and brood success (Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63). Sage-grouse avoided pinyon-juniper communities across varying degrees of community dominance; this avoidance increased survival (Coates et al. 2017b, pp. 31–33). Removal of pinyon-juniper trees encroaching into sagebrush vegetation communities can increase sage-grouse population growth through improving juvenile, yearling, and adult survival as VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 well as improving nest survival (Olsen 2019, pp. 21–22). This research found population growth was 11.2 percent higher in treatment than in control sites within 5 years of conifer removal. Therefore, woodland encroachment into occupied sage-grouse habitat reduces, and likely eventually eliminates, sagegrouse occupancy. However, treatment action to remove trees increases sagebrush habitat, and these habitats are used successfully by sage-grouse. Prior to the development of the BSAP in 2012, approximately 18 woodland thinning or removal projects had been undertaken, removing approximately 5,454 ha (13,479 ac) of woodland (BiState TAC 2012, p. 5). Since this time, an additional 81 projects have been initiated, treating approximately 18,798 ha (46,450 ac). While it is premature to detect a population-level response of sage-grouse to these treatments in the Bi-State region, increases in occupied habitat and increases in nest and brood success as well as survival parameters are anticipated based on recent research finding a positive overall outcome for population performance and connectivity (Coates et al. 2017b, pp. 31–33; Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63; Severson et al. 2017, p. 53; Olsen 2019, pp. 21–22). Furthermore, preliminary analysis of marked birds in the Bi-State area demonstrates grouse use of these treatments and offers support for these research findings (Mathews et al. 2018, pp. 33–34). Implementation and planning of additional woodland treatment projects are also under way over the next several years covering tens of thousands of acres. Using the best available data, we estimate that the current acres of conifer removal treatments is within the range of estimated acres of woodland expansion and, further, that these treatments will continue based on ongoing commitments provided by land managers to implement the BSAP. Overall, we consider woodland succession to pose a substantial threat to the Bi-State DPS. However, we consider impacts from woodland succession to be reduced by conservation measures with a high degree of implementation and effectiveness, recognizing that restoring historical connectivity and preventing further loss of suitable habitat requires continued focused active management. Both nonnative invasive plants and native woodland succession are impacting the sage-grouse and its habitat in the Bi-State area. In general, nonnative plants are not abundant throughout the Bi-State area, with the exception of cheatgrass that occurs in all PMUs and is most extensive and of greatest concern in the Pine Nut PMU. PO 00000 Frm 00021 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18073 Cheatgrass is a nonnative annual species that will likely continue to expand throughout the Bi-State region in the future and increase the adverse impact that currently exists to sagebrush habitats and sage-grouse through outcompeting beneficial understory plant species and altering the fire ecology of the area. Land managers have had limited success preventing cheatgrass invasion in the West, and elevational barriers to occurrence are becoming less restrictive. The best available data suggest that future conditions that could promote expansion of cheatgrass will be most influenced by precipitation and winter temperatures (Bradley 2009, p. 200). Cheatgrass is a serious challenge to the sagebrush shrub community, and its spread will be detrimental to sagegrouse in the Bi-State area. In addition, the encroachment of native woodlands (particularly pinyon-juniper) into sagebrush habitats continues to occur throughout the Bi-State area. Currently, however, treatment actions are on par with the expansion rate. Overall, invasive nonnative and native plants occur throughout the entire Bi-State DPS’s range. We concluded in the proposed listing rule that their spread was a significant factor for proposing to list the DPS as a threatened species based on the extensive amount of pinyon-juniper encroachment and cheatgrass invasion that is occurring throughout the DPS’s range, and the interacting impact these invasions have on habitat quality (e.g., reduces foraging habitat, increases likelihood of wildfire) and habitat fragmentation. Today, we affirm that nonnative and native invasive species occur throughout the Bi-State DPS’s range and are significant threats to the species both currently and in the future. We expect this threat will increase across the range into the future unless it is actively managed. Several regulatory mechanisms identified in existing federal land use plans address the impact of nonnative invasive plants and native woodland succession, the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter the effects of these threats. In the past few years, we have gained increased certainty about the effectiveness of removal efforts for pinyon-juniper woodland. Because we have determined that the partially completed and future conservation efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), the threat of native woodland succession is being reduced, though it is still impacting E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 18074 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 sagebrush habitat throughout the DPS. Conservation measures are less effective at controlling and ameliorating the effects of nonnative invasive plants, and thus they will continue to affect sagebrush habitat into the foreseeable future. Wildfires and Altered Fire Regime Wildfire is the principal disturbance mechanism affecting sagebrush communities. The nature of historical fire patterns, particularly in big sagebrush, is not well understood; however, it was historically infrequent (Miller and Eddleman 2000, p. 16; Zouhar et al. 2008, p. 154; Baker 2011, pp. 189, 196). Most sagebrush species have not developed evolutionary adaptations such as re-sprouting and heat-stimulated seed germination found in other shrub-dominated systems, such as chaparral, that are exposed to relatively frequent fire events. Natural fire regimes and landscapes were shaped by a few infrequent large fire events; historical fire rotation was 50– 200 years in mountain big sagebrush communities and 200–350 years in Wyoming big sagebrush communities (Baker 2011, p. 196; Bukowski and Baker 2013, pp. 556–558). In general, fire extensively reduces sagebrush within burned areas, and big sagebrush varieties, the most widespread species of sagebrush, can take decades to reestablish and even longer to return to pre-burn conditions (Service 2020, p. 79). While no specific studies have been conducted within the Bi-State area to inform our knowledge of fire rotation, we expect the pattern in Wyoming big sagebrush and mountain big sagebrush communities in the Bi-state area to be similar to those described above for the remainder of the species’ range. Both increases and decreases in the natural fire regime can have detrimental effects on sagebrush. When intervals between wildfire events become unnaturally long, woodlands can encroach into sagebrush communities as the prolonged interval between fires allows seedlings to establish and trees to mature (Miller et al. 2011, p. 167). Currently, active wildfire suppression continues to occur throughout the BiState DPS. Conversely, the invasion and establishment of nonnative invasive annual grasses, such as cheatgrass and medusahead rye (Taeniatherum caputmedusae) can increase wildfire frequency within sagebrush ecosystems and negatively influence the likelihood of recovery (Zouhar et al. 2008, p. 41; Miller et al. 2011, p. 167; Balch et al. 2013, p. 178). Cheatgrass shortens historical fire patterns by providing an VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 abundant and easily ignitable fuel source that facilitates fire spread and recovers within 1–2 years of a wildfire event, leading to a recurring wildfire cycle that prevents sagebrush reestablishment (Young and Evans 1978, p. 285; Eiswerth et al. 2009, p. 1324; Balch et al. 2013, pp. 180–181). It is difficult and usually ineffective to restore sagebrush after annual grasses become established due to the positive feedback with fire, invasive species seed bank establishment, and alterations to soil and hydrologic processes (Paysen et al. 2000, p. 154; Connelly et al. 2004, pp. 7–44–7–50; Pyke 2011, p. 539). Fire can have direct impacts on sagegrouse and their habitat. If fire does not completely remove sagebrush, it can reduce suitable nesting habitat, herbaceous understory vegetation used for forage and cover by sage-grouse hens and chicks, and potentially insects used for feeding by chicks. Additionally, isolation and fragmentation of populations due to habitat losses from wildfire presents a higher probability of extirpation in disjunct areas (Knick and Hanser 2011, p. 395; Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 469). This is a concern within the Bi-State area, specifically throughout the Pine Nut and portions of the South Mono and Desert Creek-Fales PMUs where burned habitat may be influencing already small and disjunct populations. As areas become fragmented and isolated through disturbances such as wildfire, persistence may be hampered by the limited ability of individuals to disperse into areas that are otherwise not selfsustaining. Thus, while direct loss of habitat due to wildfire has been shown to be a significant factor associated with population persistence for sage-grouse (Beck et al. 2012, p. 452), the indirect effect posed by loss of connectivity among populations may greatly expand the influence of this threat beyond the physical fire perimeter (Knick and Hanser 2011, pp. 401–404). Sagebrush recovery rates following wildfire are highly variable, and precise estimates are often hampered by limited data from older burns. Factors contributing to the rate of shrub recovery include the amount of and distance from unburned habitat, abundance and viability of seed in soil seed bank (sagebrush seeds are typically viable for one to three seasons depending on species), rate of seed dispersal, and pre- and post-fire weather, which influences seedling germination and establishment (Young and Evans 1989, p. 204; Maier et al. 2001, p. 701; Ziegenhagen and Miller 2009, p. 201). Full recovery to pre-burn conditions in mountain sagebrush PO 00000 Frm 00022 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 communities ranges between 25 and 100 years, and in Wyoming big sagebrush communities potentially ranges between 50 and 120 years (Baker 2011, pp. 194– 195). By 25 years post-fire, Wyoming big sagebrush typically has less than 5 percent pre-fire canopy cover (Baker 2011, p. 195). Wildfire is considered a relatively high risk across all the PMUs in the BiState area due to its ability to affect large landscapes in a short period of time (BiState TAC 2012, pp. 19–49). Furthermore, the future potential of this risk is exacerbated by the presence of people, invasive species, and climate change. While numerous wildfires have occurred in the Pine Nut, and South Mono PMUs (fewer in the other PMUs) over the past 18 years, to date there have been relatively few large-scale events (Service 2020, Table 3). In general, current data also do not indicate an increase of wildfires in the PMUs over time with the exception of the Pine Nut PMU where fire occurrence is more frequent (Service 2018, unpublished data). Furthermore, cheatgrass has a more substantial presence in the Pine Nut PMU, which appears to mirror (much more than the rest of the Bi-State area) the damaging fire and invasive species cycle impacting sagebrush habitat across much of the Great Basin. The loss of habitat due to wildfire across the West is anticipated to increase due to the intensifying synergistic interactions among fire, people, invasive species, and climate change (Miller et al. 2011, p. 184). The past- and present-day fire regimes across the sage-grouse’s range have changed with a demonstrated increase of wildfires in the more arid Wyoming big sagebrush communities and a decrease of wildfire across many mountain sagebrush communities (Miller et al. 2011, pp. 167–169). Both altered fire regime scenarios have caused significant losses to sage-grouse habitat through facilitating conifer expansion at highelevation interfaces and nonnative invasive weed encroachment at lower elevations (Miller et al. 2011, pp. 167– 169). In the face of climate change, both scenarios are anticipated to worsen (Baker 2011, p. 200; Miller et al. 2011, p. 179), including in the Bi-State area. Predicted changes in temperature, precipitation, and carbon dioxide are all anticipated to influence vegetation dynamics and alter fire patterns, resulting in increasing loss and conversion of sagebrush habitats (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 157). Furthermore, climate scientists suggest that, in addition to the predicted change in climate toward a warmer and generally drier Great Basin, variability E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules of annual and decadal wet-dry cycles will likely increase and act in concert with fire, disease, and invasive species to further stress the sagebrush ecosystem (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 152, Ault et al. 2014, p. 7538). The anticipated increase in suitable conditions for wildland fire will likely further interact with people and infrastructure. Human-caused fires have increased and are correlated with road presence across the sage-grouse range (Miller et al. 2011, p. 171). Based on the best available information, approximately 117 wildfire events have affected approximately 83,859 ha (207,220 ac) of sagebrush habitat across the Bi-State area since 2000, but conversion of sagebrush habitat to a nonnative invasive vegetation community has been largely restricted (Pine Nut PMU withstanding). It appears that a lack of historical fire has facilitated the establishment of woodland vegetation communities and loss of sagebrush habitat. Both the ‘‘too little’’ and ‘‘too much’’ fire scenarios present challenges for the Bi-State DPS. The former influences the current degree of connectivity among sagegrouse populations in the Bi-State DPS and the extent of available sagebrush habitat, likely affecting sage-grouse population size and persistence. The latter, under current conditions, now has the potential to quickly alter substantial percentages of remaining sagebrush habitat. Restoration of sagebrush communities is challenging, requires many years, and may be ineffective in the presence of nonnative invasive grass species. Research in the Great Basin found that sage-grouse habitat features are unlikely to occur in many burned areas even 20 years postrestoration (Arkle et al. 2014, p. 15). Several regulatory mechanisms target the potential impact of wildfires and altered fire regime. Within the Bi-State area, participants in the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) have treated areas to reduce the threat of wildfire by using broadcast burns and mechanical treatment (e.g., fuel breaks and conifer removal projects). To lower the risk of wildfire, approximately 1,806 ha (4,462 ac) of fuels reduction treatments have been conducted to remove conifers (BiState TAC 2018, unpublished data). Additionally, the reseeding of 7,699 ha (19,025 ac) from past fires has been completed. The efficacy of these treatments to achieve desired results is generally unknown. Overall, the threat of wildfire and the existing altered fire regime occurs throughout the Bi-State DPS’s range. We concluded in the proposed listing rule that significant impacts would be VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 expected to continue or increase in the future based on a continued fire frequency pattern that exacerbates pinyon-juniper encroachment into sagebrush habitat in some locations, but also an increased fire frequency in other locations that promotes the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species that in turn can hamper recovery of sagebrush habitat. Within the Bi-State DPS, the continued reduced fire frequency exacerbates pinyon-juniper encroachment into sagebrush habitat in some locations. However, an increased fire frequency in other locations promotes the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species that in turn can hamper recovery of sagebrush habitats in other locations. While it is not currently possible to predict the extent or location of future fire events in the Bi-State area, we anticipate fire frequency to increase in the future due to the increasing presence of cheatgrass, human footprint, and the projected effects of climate change. The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter effects such as wildfire ignition risks and catastrophic fire. Fuels reduction projects and rehabilitation efforts postwildfire have been and will continue to be implemented into the future to address the potential impacts from wildfire, including (but not limited to): Conducting conifer (pinyon-juniper) removal and conducting weed treatments for invasive, nonnative plants such as cheatgrass. Because we have determined that the partially completed and future conservation efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we conclude that impacts due to the threat of wildfires and altered fire regime have been reduced since the time of the 2013 proposed listing rule. We expect that, into the future, continued implementation of the BSAP will further reduce the impacts of wildfire and altered fire regime. Climate In considering future climate projections for the Bi-State area, we analyzed multi-model ensembles that made use of multiple greenhouse gas emission scenarios. In general, downscaled climate change model predictions in the Bi-State area tend to agree on an increasing temperature regime (Cayan et al. 2008, pp. S38–S40; He et al. 2018, p. 11; Gonzalez et al. 2018, Chapter 25) and stable to increasing local precipitation, with a shift in timing of local precipitation events (Diffenbaugh et al. 2005, p. PO 00000 Frm 00023 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18075 15776; Cayan et al. 2008, p. S28; He et al. 2018, p. 14: Reich et al. 2018, p. 21). The environment will be relatively drier due to elevated temperature, increased rates of evapotranspiration, more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, and more frequent and prolonged drought (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 150; He et al. 2018, pp. 9, 11, 16). The precipitation variables are an important predictor of sagebrush occurrence as well as to greater sage-grouse occurrence, as timing and quantity of precipitation greatly influences plant community composition and extent— specifically forb production, which in turn affects nest and chick survival and ultimately population performance (Blomberg et al. 2012, p. 7; Coates et al. 2018, p. 252). Impacts associated with climate change may increase the magnitude of threats impacting the BiState DPS, as its effects interact with other stressors such as disease, invasive species, prey availability, moisture, vegetation community dynamics, disturbance regimes, habitat degradation, and habitat loss (Service 2020, p. 89). Downscaled climate change projections in the Great Basin and Eastern Sierra also predict acceleration in fire frequency, with fires potentially becoming larger and more severe, and fire seasons becoming longer (Service 2020, pp. 87–88). Furthermore, drought frequency and persistence are anticipated to increase (Ault et al. 2014, p. 7545; Reich et al. 2018, p. 31; Gonzalez et al. 2018, entire). In the BiState area, drought is a natural part of the sagebrush ecosystem. Sage-grouse population performance in the Bi-State region responds to alterations in annual precipitation (Coates et al. 2018, p. 252; Coates et al. 2020, p. 27). While there is variation among subpopulations, on average findings suggest a 50 percent increase in precipitation corresponds to a 15.5 percent increase in population growth the following year. Moreover, these results indicate that precipitation needs to be approximately 20 percent greater than average for population recovery following drought, consistent with results from the Great Basin in the absence of wildfire (Coates et al. 2016b, p. 12747; Coates et al. 2018, p. 255). Sage-grouse are affected by drought through the loss of vegetative habitat components, reduced insect production (Connelly and Braun 1997, p. 9), and potentially exacerbation of West Nile virus (WNv) and predation exposure (Gibson et al. 2017, p. 177; Prochazka et al. 2017, p. 47; Coates et al. 2018, p. 255). Drought reduces vegetation cover (Milton et al. 1994, p. 75; Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7–18), potentially resulting in E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18076 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules increased soil erosion and subsequent reduced soil depths, decreased water infiltration, and reduced water storage capacity. These habitat component losses can result in declining sagegrouse populations due to increased nest predation and early brood mortality associated with decreased nest and brood cover and food availability (Braun 1998, p. 149; Moynahan et al. 2007, p. 1781). Furthermore, there are known occasions where the reduced condition of brood-rearing habitat due to weather has resulted in little to no recruitment within certain PMUs (Bodie, Pine Nut) (Gardner 2009, pers. comm.; Coates 2012, pers. comm.). Within the Bi-State area, several projects have been undertaken to improve meadows and riparian areas for sage-grouse that could help increase population resiliency in response to increasing frequency of drought. These projects include grazing exclosures, changes to grazing management plans, prescribed fires, invasive plant control, mechanical treatments, and conservation easements intended to improve the resiliency of meadow habitats on privately owned lands (BiState TAC 2018, unpublished data). Climate change is not known to currently impact the Bi-State DPS to such a degree that the viability of the species is at stake, although climate change has been shown to influence the impact of drought and the annual water cycle and these in turn have been shown to influence grouse population performance in the Bi-State area (Coates et al. 2018, p. 251; Reich et al. 2018, pp. 31, 33). However, while it is reasonable to assume the Bi-State area will experience vegetation changes into the future (as presented above), we do not know the degree to which these changes will ultimately have impacts on the BiState DPS. An analysis conducted by NatureServe, which incorporates much of the information presented above, suggests a substantial contraction of both sagebrush and sage-grouse range in the Bi-State area by 2060 (Comer et al. 2013, pp. 142, 145). Occurrence of cheatgrass has generally been restricted to elevations below approximately 1,700 m (5,500 ft.) above mean sea level (Bradley 2010, p. 202). More recently, this barrier appears less certain in the Bi-State area as cheatgrass occurs at elevations previously thought to be relatively unfavorable based on the grass’s ecology. This situation suggests that few locations in the Bi-State area are immune to cheatgrass invasion. Climate change may strongly influence the spread of this species as the available climate data suggests changes in timing VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 of precipitation and increasing winter temperatures favorable to this species (Bradley 2009, p. 200). Predictions on the timing, type, and amount of precipitation contain the greatest uncertainty. In the Bi-State area, model scenarios that result in the greatest expansion of cheatgrass suggest much of the area remains suitable to cheatgrass presence with some additional highelevation sites in the Bodie Hills, White Mountains, and Long Valley becoming more suitable than they are today (Bradley 2009, p. 204). On the opposite end of the spectrum, model scenarios that result in the greatest contraction in cheatgrass range suggest low-elevation sites such as Desert Creek-Fales and Mount Grant PMUs become less suitable for this invasive species but highelevation sites (Bodie and White Mountains PMUs), where habitat conditions are generally marginal today, become more suitable in the future. Based on this information we assume that climate change (acting both alone and in concert with impacts such as wildfire and nonnative invasive species) could be pervasive throughout the range of the Bi-State DPS, potentially degrading habitat to such a degree that all populations would be negatively affected with some low-elevation sites or populations currently exposed to greater cheatgrass abundance (Pine Nut, Desert Creek-Fales, South Mono and portions of the Mount Grant PMUs). Therefore, given the scope and potential severity of climate change when interacting with other threats in the future, the overall impact of climate change to the Bi-State DPS at this time is considered moderate to high. We concluded in the proposed listing rule that climate change will potentially act in combination with other impacts to the Bi-State DPS, further diminishing habitat and increasing population isolation, making the DPS more susceptible to demographic and genetic challenges or disease. Although no regulatory mechanisms are available that can ameliorate the effect of changing climate or increasing drought, ongoing implementation of various conservation measures in the BSAP increases the resilience of the habitat to the effects of threats exacerbated by climate change and drought, such as wildfire and invasive plants (e.g., through removal of pinyon-juniper woodland). We expect that, into the future, continued implementation of the BSAP will further reduce the impacts of these threats associated with climate change. PO 00000 Frm 00024 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 Recreation Recreational activities such as fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and camping, off-highway vehicle (OHV) use (including snowmobiles), and mountain biking occur throughout the range of the greater sage-grouse, including throughout the Bi-State DPS area. These activities can degrade wildlife resources, water, and land by distributing refuse, disturbing and displacing wildlife, increasing animal mortality, and decreasing diversity of plant communities (Boyle and Samson 1985, pp. 110–112). The effects of OHV use on sage-grouse have not been directly studied (Knick et al. 2011, p. 219). However, sage-grouse avoidance of activities associated with development suggests they are disturbed by persistent human presence (Holloran 2005, pp. 43, 53, 58; Doherty et al. 2008, p. 194). Sage-grouse response to disturbance may be influenced by the type of activity, recreationist behavior, predictability of activity, frequency and magnitude, activity timing, and activity location (Knight and Cole 1995, p. 71). Disruption of sage-grouse during vulnerable periods at leks, or during nesting or early brood-rearing, could affect reproduction and survival (Baydack and Hein 1987, pp. 537–538). Indirect effects to sage-grouse from recreational activities may include impacts to vegetation and soils and facilitation of the spread of invasive species. One study found long-term (2year) reductions in sagebrush shrub canopy cover as the result of repeated OHV trips (Payne et al. 1983, p. 329). Increased sediment production and decreased soil infiltration rates were observed after disturbance by motorcycles and four-wheel drive trucks on two desert soils in southern Nevada; noise from these activities can also cause additional disturbance (Eckert et al. 1979, p. 395; Knick et al. 2011, p. 219; Blickley et al. 2012, p. 467). Unpaved roads fragment sagebrush landscapes and subsidize predators adapted to humans; they also provide disturbed surfaces that facilitate the spread of invasive plant species (Knick et al. 2011, p. 219). Potential disturbance caused by nonmotorized forms of recreation (fishing, camping, hiking, big game hunting, dog training) are most prevalent in the South Mono and Bodie PMUs. These PMUs are also exposed to tourism-associated activity centered on Mono Lake and the towns of Mammoth Lakes and Bodie. The exact amount of recreational activity or user days occurring in the area is not known; however, the number of people in the area appears to increase E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules annually (Nelson 2008, pers. comm.; Taylor 2018, pers. comm.). A 2012 assessment reported recreation and human disturbance to be low-level threats in the Bodie and Mount Grant PMUs but relatively high threats in the Pine Nut and South Mono PMUs (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 19, 32, 37, 49). To address these apparent challenges, across the Bi-State, vehicular travel is limited to designated roads and trails and development of new roads is largely restricted. In addition, organized OHV events are prohibited during specific dates and in specific habitats (breeding and winter) limiting the exposure of birds (BLM 2016, pp. 13–14; HTNF 2016, p. 43). Currently, there are few quantifiable data available to assess the degree of the impacts of recreation. The level of recreational activity associated with a specific road, for instance, is not known even though anecdotal information suggests that the level of activity (OHV numbers) is generally increasing. All the PMUs are relatively close to urban centers; thus, we anticipate recreational activity will continue and likely increase. However, all public lands in the Bi-State restrict OHV use to designated roads and trails and existing land use plans afford management oversite of this activity, thereby lessening the likelihood of broad scale habitat degradation. Overall, recreation occurs throughout the Bi-State DPS’s range, although we do not have data that would indicate impacts to sage-grouse or their habitat are significant. We concluded in the proposed listing rule and reaffirm here that, by itself, recreation is not considered a significant impact at this time. However, if left unchecked, some forms of recreation could become a concern based on anticipated increases of recreational use within the Bi-State area in the future. Conservation efforts that address recreational impacts have continued to be implemented since publication of the proposed listing rule, including (but not limited to): Reducing human-related disturbances in high-use recreation areas (e.g., installing sagegrouse educational signs), conducting seasonal closures of lek viewing areas, and implementing both permanent and seasonal road closures. With continued implementation of conservation actions associated with the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), impacts from recreation are significantly reduced. The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter effects such as human disturbance to the BiState DPS, including recreation-related impacts. Because we have determined that the partially completed and future VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 conservation efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe impacts associated with recreation are not a concern into the future. Disease Sage-grouse are hosts for a variety of parasites and diseases (Thorne et al. 1982, p. 338; Connelly et al. 2004, pp. 10–4–10–7; Christiansen and Tate, 2011, p. 114). The disease of greatest concern to the Bi-State DPS is WNv, which can cause serious impacts to grouse species, potentially influencing population dynamics (Petersen 2004, p. 46). WNv has spread across North America since 1999 (Marra et al. 2004, p. 394). It is thought to have caused millions of wild bird deaths since its introduction, but most WNv mortality goes unnoticed or unreported (Ward et al. 2006, p. 101; Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 128). Sagegrouse are considered to have high susceptibility to WNv and high levels of mortality (Clark et al. 2006, p. 19; McLean 2006, p. 54). Sage-grouse deaths resulting from WNv have been detected in 10 States— including in the Bi-State area—and in 1 Canadian Province (Walker and Naugle 2011, pp. 133, 135). Since 2002, mortalities have been documented annually. Mortality from WNv has been shown to cause population declines in populations throughout the West (Service 2020, pp. 106–107). Scientists have expressed concern regarding the potential for exacerbating WNv persistence and spread due to the proliferation of surface water features (Friend et al. 2001, p. 298; Zou et al. 2006, p. 1040; Walker et al. 2007b, p. 695; Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 140). WNv persists on the landscape after it first occurs as an epizootic, suggesting this virus will remain a long-term issue in affected areas (McLean 2006, p. 50). The long-term response of different sage-grouse populations to WNv infections is expected to vary markedly depending on factors that influence exposure and susceptibility, such as temperature, land uses, and sage-grouse population size (Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 140). Small, isolated, or genetically limited populations are at higher risk as an infection may reduce population size below a threshold where recovery is no longer possible, as observed in an extirpated population in Wyoming (Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 140). Larger populations may be able to absorb impacts resulting from WNv as long as the quality and extent of available habitat supports positive population growth (Walker and Naugle PO 00000 Frm 00025 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18077 2011, p. 140). However, impacts from this disease may act in combination with other stressors resulting in reduction of population size, bird distribution, or persistence (Walker et al. 2007a, p. 2652). Small populations, such as the populations within the BiState area, may be at high risk of extirpation simply due to their low population numbers and the additive mortality WNv causes (Christiansen and Tate, 2011, pp. 125–126). The documented loss of four sagegrouse to WNv in the Bodie (n=3) and Desert Creek-Fales (n=1) PMUs (Casazza et al. 2009, p. 45) has heightened our concerns about the potential impact of this disease in the Bi-State area. At that time, these disease-caused mortalities represented only 4 percent of the total sage-grouse mortalities observed in the Bi-State area, but additional mortality attributed to predation could have been due in part to disease-weakened individuals. Mortality caused by disease acts in a density-independent or additive manner. The fact that it can act independently of habitat and suppress a population below carrying capacity makes it a concern. Existing and developing models suggest that the occurrence of WNv is likely to increase throughout the range of the species, and, based on projected increases in temperature caused by changes in climate, occurrence in the Bi-State may also increase (Paz 2015, p. 3). Based on our current knowledge of the virus, the relatively high elevations and cold temperatures common in much of the Bi-State area likely reduce the chance of a DPS-wide outbreak. However, warmer, lower elevation sites such as portions of the Mount Grant and Desert Creek-Fales PMUs may be more suitable for outbreaks. The impact on individual populations from WNv outbreaks may influence the dynamics of the Bi-State DPS as a whole through the loss of population resiliency and the associated challenges of recolonizing extirpated sites through natural emigration. Climate change may also influence the spread of disease. Temperature and precipitation both directly influence potential for WNv transmission (Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 131). In sagegrouse, WNv outbreaks appear to be most severe in years with higher summer temperatures (Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 131) and under drought conditions (Epstein and Defilippo 2001, p. 105). Therefore, current climate change projections for higher summer temperatures, more frequent or severe drought, or both make more severe WNv outbreaks likely in low-elevation sagegrouse habitats where WNv is already E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 18078 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 endemic, and also make WNv outbreaks possible in higher elevation sage-grouse habitats that have been WNv-free due to relatively cold conditions. The development or maintenance of anthropogenic water sources in the BiState area, some of which likely provide suitable conditions for breeding mosquitoes, potentially increases the likely prevalence of the virus above that which could be sustained naturally by existing water bodies such as streams and meadows. To partially ameliorate this concern, Federal land managers require livestock water troughs to be emptied when not in use (BLM 2016, p. 11; HTNF 2016, p. 17). We concluded in the proposed listing rule, and reaffirm here, that by itself, WNv is not considered a significant impact at this time because it is currently limited by ambient temperatures that do not allow consistent vector and virus maturation. However, WNv could be a concern for the future if predicted temperature increases associated with climate change result in this threat becoming more consistently prevalent. No current regulatory mechanisms address the impacts of WNv. However, with continued implementation of conservation actions (WNv surveillance and mosquito abatement measures) associated with the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), the minor or potential impacts from WNv are reduced to the point that we find disease is not currently impacting the resiliency of the Bi-State DPS, nor do we expect it to impact the DPS in the foreseeable future. Predation Predation of sage-grouse is the most commonly identified cause of direct mortality during all life stages (Schroeder et al. 1999, p. 9; Connelly et al. 2000b, p. 228; Casazza et al. 2009, p. 45; Connelly et al. 2011a, p. 65). Major predators of adult sage-grouse include several species of diurnal raptors (especially the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)), coyotes (Canis latrans), red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), and bobcats (Lynx rufus) (Hartzler 1974, pp. 532–536; Schroeder et al. 1999, pp. 10–11; Schroeder and Baydack 2001, p. 25; Rowland and Wisdom 2002, p. 14; Hagen 2011, p. 97). Juvenile sage-grouse also are killed by many raptors as well as common ravens, badgers, red foxes, coyotes and weasels (Mustela spp.) (Braun 1995, entire; Schroeder et al. 1999, p. 10). Nest predators include badgers, weasels, coyotes, common ravens, American crows, and magpies (Pica spp.); sage-grouse eggs have also been consumed by elk (Cervus VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 canadensis) (Holloran and Anderson 2003, p. 309) and domestic cows (Bovus spp.) (Coates et al. 2008, pp. 425–426; Dinkins et al. 2013, p. 305). However, sage-grouse have co-evolved with a variety of predators, and their cryptic plumage and behavioral adaptations have allowed them to persist (Schroeder et al. 1999, p. 10; Coates 2007, p. 69; Coates and Delehanty 2008, p. 635; Hagen 2011, p. 96). Although many predators consume sage-grouse, none specialize on the species (Hagen 2011, p. 97). Generalist predators may still have a significant effect on groundnesting birds, because unlike specialist predators, generalist predator numbers are independent of prey density (Coates 2007, p. 4). Predation is typically the principal cause of nest loss, which is a key determinant in sage-grouse population dynamics (Schroeder et al. 1999, p. 15; Taylor et al. 2012, p. 342). Sage-grouse nest depredation can be total (all eggs destroyed) or partial (one or more eggs destroyed). However, hens abandon nests in either case (Coates 2007, p. 26). Nest success across the California portion of the Bi-State area is within the normal range, with some locations even higher than previously documented (Kolada 2009a, p. 1344; Mathews et al. 2018, p. 54). However, the lowest estimates occur in Long Valley (South Mono PMU; 21 percent; Kolada 2009a, p. 1344), which is of concern as this is a core population for the species in the Bi-State area and is also the population most likely exposed to the greatest amount of nest predators (Kolada et al. 2009b, p. 1344; Mathews et al. 2018, p. 53). The negative impact from reduced nesting success in this location is presumably being offset by other demographic statistics such as chick or adult survival (Service 2020, p. 116). A number of factors have been reported to influence the density and diversity of predators, including agricultural development, landscape fragmentation, livestock presence, habitat alterations, and human populations, among others (Service 2020, p. 113). These factors have the potential to increase predation pressure on all life stages of sage-grouse by forcing birds to nest in less suitable or marginal habitats with no cover to shield them, and by increasing travel time through habitats where they are vulnerable to predation. Where sagegrouse habitat has been altered, the influx of predators can decrease annual recruitment into a population (Service 2020, p. 113). Raven abundance has increased as much as 1,500 percent in some areas of western North America since the 1960s PO 00000 Frm 00026 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 (Coates and Delhanty 2010, p. 244). Human-made structures in the environment increase the magnitude of raven predation, particularly in lowcanopy cover areas, by providing ravens with perches and nesting substrate (Braun 1998, pp. 145–146; Coates 2007, p. 155; Bui 2009, p. 2). Reduction in patch size and diversity of sagebrush habitat, as well as the construction of fences, power lines, landfills, and other infrastructure (as discussed in Infrastructure) also are likely to encourage the presence of the common raven (Coates et al. 2008, p. 426; Bui 2009, p. 4; Howe et al. 2014, p. 41). High sage-grouse nest densities in small patches of quality habitat (which result from habitat fragmentation or disturbance associated with the presence of edges, fencerows, or trails) may increase predation rates by making foraging easier for predators (Holloran 2005, p. C37). The presence of ravens is negatively associated with grouse nest and brood fate (Bui 2009, p. 27; Gibson et al. 2018, pp. 14–15). Raven abundance was strongly associated with sage-grouse nest failure in northeastern Nevada, with resultant negative effects on sagegrouse reproduction; an increase of 1 raven per 10-km (6-mi) survey transect was associated with a 7.4 percent increase in nest failure (Coates and Delehanty 2010, p. 243). In the Virginia Mountains (just north of the Bi-State DPS), ravens were the most common nest predator, accounting for almost 47 percent of nest depredations (Lockyer et al. 2013, p. 246). Threats associated with livestock grazing and predation may interact. In general, all recorded encounters between livestock and grouse nests resulted in hens flushing from nests (Coates et al. 2008, p. 462), which could expose the eggs to predation. There is strong evidence that visual predators like ravens use hen movements to locate sage-grouse nests (Coates 2007, p. 33); this is a concern for the Bi-State DPS given that ravens are the primary predators of sage-grouse in the Bi-State area. Livestock may also trample nests and sagebrush bushes and seedlings, thereby impacting future sage-grouse food and cover (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7–31). Additionally, the odds of common raven occurrence, a pervasive sage-grouse nest predator, increased by approximately 46 percent in areas where livestock were present (Coates et al. 2016a, p. 10). The presence of infrastructure might also increase the magnitude of predation; increased raven presence may be attributable to the presence of water developments and associated perching structures E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules (windmills and fences) (Coates et al. 2016a, p. 10). Predator removal efforts have sometimes shown short-term gains that may benefit seasonal survival rates, but there is limited support of these efforts influencing sustainable population growth (Cote and Sutherland 1997, p. 402; Hagen 2011, p. 9; Leu and Hanser 2011, p. 27; Dinkins et al. 2016, pp. 54– 55; Peebles et al. 2017, p. 475). For example, raven removal has been shown to have a positive effect on nest success (Dinkins et al. 2016, p. 54); however, ultimate results on population growth rates are negligible or not as well understood. Removal of ravens from an area in northeastern Nevada caused only short-term reductions in raven populations (less than 1 year) as apparently transient birds from neighboring sites repopulated the removal area (Coates 2007, p. 151). Raven removal in one Wyoming study resulted in a 50 percent reduction in raven densities during 2008–2014, while non-removal sites saw a 42 percent increase in raven densities (Peebles et al. 2017, p. 476). The authors reported increases in lek counts following a 1-year lag during raven removal; however, other factors were also associated with increased lek counts in this study that included minimum temperatures and precipitation during the brood-rearing period. As specified in the BSAP and associated project spreadsheet (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), the participants have worked to reduce threats to sage-grouse in the Bi-State DPS from predators. Removal of infrastructure (e.g., landfills, tall structures) may be a crucial step to reducing the presence of sage-grouse predators (Bui 2009, pp. 36–37; Leu and Hanser 2011, pp. 270–271). In the Bodie PMU, perching and nesting sites have been eliminated by infrastructure removal (e.g., windmill, transmission line). In the Desert Creek/Fales PMU, 3 km (1.85 mi) of fence in the Sweetwater Summit area was fitted with perch deterrents. Additionally, nearly 24,281 ha (60,000 ac) of conifer-encroached sagebrush have been treated in the Bodie, Desert Creek/Fales, Pine Nut, Mount Grant, and South Mono PMUs to remove conifers and reduce perch sites for predators. Overall, predation is currently known to occur throughout the Bi-State DPS’s range. It is facilitated by habitat fragmentation and composition, infrastructure (fences, power lines, and roads) and other human activities that may be altering natural population dynamics in specific areas throughout the Bi-State DPS’s range. The impacts of VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 predation on sage-grouse can increase where habitat quality has been compromised by anthropogenic activities and ultimately influence population performance (Coates 2007, pp. 154, 155; Bui 2009, p. 16; Hagen 2011, p. 100). Landscape fragmentation, habitat degradation, and human populations have likely increased predator populations through increasing the ease of securing prey, and through human structures like landfills adding food sources. Other human structures can provide nest or den substrates for predator species. Certain sage-grouse populations are exhibiting deviations in vital rates below those anticipated, and the deviation may be related to predation. The populations with this issue are the Long Valley population (South Mono PMU), which is one of the two largest (core) populations in the BiState DPS, as well to the Desert Creek population (Desert Creek-Fales PMU) and the Pine Nut PMU. If assuming potential predation is connected to the deviations, the Bodie and White Mountains PMUs are likely least affected by predation. At natural levels and in unaltered habitat, it is unlikely that predation would be a significant impact to the DPS, given that the sage-grouse have coevolved with a number of predators, and no predators specialize on sagegrouse. However, we recognize that, in concert with altered habitat, it may become an increasing concern in the future. As more habitats face development (including roads, power lines, and other anthropogenic features such as landfills, airports, and urbanization), we expect the risk of increased predation to spread, possibly with negative effects on the sage-grouse population trends. We concluded in the proposed listing rule, and reaffirm here, that, by itself, predation is not considered a significant impact at this time. There are no regulatory mechanisms addressing predation directly, but regulatory mechanisms and conservation efforts that indirectly influence predation have continued to be implemented since publication of the proposed listing rule, including (but not limited to): Removing and limiting structures that attract predators (e.g., fencing, power lines), and conducting initial procedures to remove the landfill in Long Valley. With continued implementation of conservation actions associated with the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), impacts from predation are significantly reduced. The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter effects such as predation risks to the Bi-State DPS. Because we have determined that PO 00000 Frm 00027 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18079 the partially completed and future conservation efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe that predation is not a concern into the future. Small Population Size and Population Isolation The Bi-State DPS is relatively small and both geographically and genetically isolated from the remainder of the greater sage-grouse distribution. All isolated populations of sage-grouse are more vulnerable to genetic, demographic, or stochastic events. However, available data indicate genetic diversity in the Bi-State area is currently high (Oyler-McCance and Quinn 2011, p. 18). Thus, we currently have no indication that genetic factors such as inbreeding depression, hybridization, or loss of genetic diversity are acting on the Bi-State DPS. However, populations in the Bi-State area have unique detectable qualities that allow differentiation from one another (OylerMcCance et al. 2014, entire; Tebbenkamp 2014, entire). Also, the Parker Meadows area (a single isolated lek system located in the South Mono PMU) is experiencing a disproportionately high degree of nest failures due to nonviable eggs (Gardner 2009, pers. comm.), suggesting a possible manifestation of genetic challenges; this small breeding complex has the lowest reported genetic diversity in the Bi-State area (Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 1304). We do not know if this is caused by inbreeding depression, loss of genetic diversity, or other factors, but to address this, a translocation project was developed in conjunction with the USGS and implemented in 2017. There has been some initial success in survival of transferred broods (Mathews et al. 2018, p. 37). The Bi-State DPS comprises approximately 50 active leks representing several relatively discrete populations. Fitness and population size across a variety of taxa are strongly correlated, and smaller populations are more challenged by environmental and demographic stochasticity (Keller and Waller 2002, pp. 239–240; Reed 2005, p. 566). These small, isolated populations may face future genetic challenges. When coupled with mortality stressors related to human activity and significant fluctuations in annual population size, long-term persistence of small populations (in general) can be challenging (Traill et al. 2010, entire). The Pine Nut PMU has the smallest number of sage-grouse of all Bi-State area PMUs (usually less than 100 E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 18080 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules individuals as observed from data collected between 2003 and 2017, representing approximately 5 percent of the DPS). However, each population in the Bi-State DPS is relatively small, as is the entire DPS on average (estimated at approximately 3,280 individuals). One way to address population health and viability is through analysis of effective population size. Effective population size is defined as the size of the idealized population of breeding adults that would experience the same rate of loss of heterozygosity, change in the average inbreeding coefficient, or change in variance in allele frequency through genetic drift as the actual population (Frankham et al. 2002, pp. 312–317). As effective population size decreases, the rate of loss of genetic diversity increases. The consequences of this loss of genetic diversity, reduced fitness through inbreeding depression and reduced adaptive (evolutionary) potential, are thought to elevate extinction risk (Frankham 2005, p. 135). Studies suggest effective population size should exceed 50 to 100 individuals to avoid short-term extinction risk caused by inbreeding depression, and mathematical models suggest that effective population size should exceed 500 individuals to retain evolutionary potential and avoid long-term extinction risk (Franklin 1980, entire; Soule 1980, entire). Some estimates of effective population size have been as high as 5,000 individuals, but these estimates are thought to be highly species specific and influenced by many extrinsic factors (Lande 1995, p. 789). Sage-grouse have one of the most polygamous mating systems observed among birds (Deibert 1995, p. 92). Asymmetrical mate selection (where only a few of the available members of one sex are selected as mates) should result in reduced effective population sizes (Deibert 1995, p. 92), meaning the actual amount of genetic material contributed to the next generation is smaller than predicted by the number of individuals present in the population. Furthermore, variation in female reproductive success, fluctuating population size, unequal sex ratios, the fact that not all males breed each year, and other sage-grouse characteristics all reduce effective population size (Frankham 1995, p. 796; Aldridge and Brigham 2003, p. 30; Stiver et al. 2008, p. 473; Bush 2009, p. 108). Each of these influencing factors on effective population size occurs in the Bi-State DPS and suggests population sizes in sage-grouse must be greater than in nonlekking bird species to maintain longterm genetic diversity. The effective population size of a wildlife population is often much less than its actual size. We are unaware of specific data or literature that definitively identifies the number of sage-grouse needed to maintain an effective population size of birds that would also result in a viable population. However, some literature exists to help us understand the complexities of answering this question for the Bi-State DPS or any other region within the range of the greater sage-grouse. One study concluded that up to 5,000 individual sage-grouse may be necessary to maintain an effective population size of 500 birds (Aldridge and Brigham 2003, p. 30). Their estimate was based on individual male breeding success, variation in reproductive success of males that do breed, and the death rate of juvenile birds. Similarly, a metaanalysis based on a wide array of species determined that a minimum viable population size (actual population size) necessary for long-term persistence should be on the order of 5,000 adult individuals (Traill et al. 2010, p. 32), though others have argued a minimum viable population would be from 2 to 10 times this figure (Franklin and Frankham 1998, p. 70; Lynch and Lande 1998, p. 72). However, another analysis countered that there is no single minimum population size number for all taxa, and that extinction risk depends on a complex interaction between life-history strategies, environmental context, and threat (Flather et al. 2011, entire). Based on data from 2018, the median abundance estimate of the Bi-State DPS spring breeding population is approximately 3,305 individuals (95 percent CRI = 2,247–4,683; Coates et al. 2020, p. 26). This estimate (as well as PMU specific estimates) was derived using the integrated population model outputs of male abundance based on lek count and demographic (telemetry) data, as well as by multiple post-hoc adjustments, given results of ancillary research. Adjustments included reported distributions for detection probability (Coates et al. in press, entire), lek attendance probability (Wann et al. 2019, p. 7), and sex ratio (Hagen et al. 2018, p. 4). Also included was an adjustment to account for ‘unknown’ leks, based on a 95 percent assumed known lek value. This value was derived from expert knowledge by members of the Bi-State Technical Advisory Committee. Using this estimate and the studies identified above describing effective population size being on the order of 10 to 20 percent of the actual population size, in the Bi-State area, the estimated average effective population size (for the entire Bi-State area in 2018) is approximately 330 to 661 sage-grouse, below the 5,000 individual threshold recommended by some researchers, but above the 50 individual threshold. Genetic and radiotelemetry studies, however, indicate that some sage-grouse populations in the Bi-State area are isolated, suggesting that the effective population size is actually less (Table 2). Based on these data, we calculate the effective population size for four generally discrete populations in the Bi-State (as described in Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, Figure 4) to provide context surrounding long–term genetic viability of these units (Table 2). TABLE 2—2018 ESTIMATED POPULATION SIZE AND RANGE OF ESTIMATED EFFECTIVE POPULATION SIZE BY GENETIC CLUSTER FOR THE BI-STATE AREA, NEVADA AND CALIFORNIA jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 PMU Estimated median population size 2018 Estimated effective population size range 2018 33 2,342 818 45 3,305 3–6 234–468 81–163 4.5–9 330–661 Pine Nut ................................................................................................................................................. Desert Creek–Fales, Mount Grant, Bodie ............................................................................................. Long Valley ............................................................................................................................................ White Mountains .................................................................................................................................... Bi-State DPS .......................................................................................................................................... Empirical data from Colorado showed the effective population size in VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 Gunnison sage-grouse to be about 20 percent of actual population size (Stiver PO 00000 Frm 00028 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 et al. 2008, p. 478). We are unaware of any other published estimates of E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 minimal population sizes necessary to maintain genetic diversity and longterm population sustainability in sagegrouse and specifically for the Bi-State DPS, and whether the described effective population sizes above are of concern. Most populations of the BiState DPS have been below the possible minimum population sizes as described above, in large part due to the natural cycling of sage-grouse populations, yet continue to persist. Small population size and a discontinuous population structure occur throughout the Bi-State DPS’s range, which could make the Bi-State DPS more vulnerable to impacts of threats described herein both currently and likely in the future in the absence of any ameliorating conservation efforts. However, conservation efforts addressing the threats acting upon these small populations have been implemented since publication of the proposed listing rule, including (but not limited to) translocation of sage-grouse into the Parker Meadows subpopulation, restoring critical brood-rearing habitat areas, and addressing invasive nonnative and native plants. Because we expect conservation implementation to continue under the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), the risks associated with small population size will be reduced. Summary of Threats Throughout the threats discussion, we considered individual threats and, where appropriate, how they interact with other threats. Here, we consider the threats holistically to determine their impact on the Bi-State sage-grouse and its habitat. Currently and into the future, the threats with the highest impact to the DPS are wildfire and altered fire regimes, and nonnative invasive and native woodland succession. Threats from urbanization and habitat conversion; infrastructure; mining; grazing and rangeland management; climate change; predation, and small population size and population isolation are also occurring. Threats from recreation and disease affect only a few individuals a year, and we do not expect that rate to increase into the foreseeable future. All of these threats are exacerbated by the population isolation and discontinuous population structure. In summarizing the impacts of threats, we also consider impacts of renewable energy, commercial and recreational hunting, scientific and educational uses, and contaminants (including pesticides). Though impacts from these threats are expected to be minimal VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 relative to the overall condition of the DPS (Service 2020, pp. 63–124), and though we did not present summary analyses of these threats in this Federal Register document, we still consider them when evaluating the cumulative impact of all threats on the DPS. Small, isolated populations such as those found in the Bi-State area are more challenged by stochastic events such as disease epidemics, prey population crashes, or environmental catastrophes. Interactions between climate change, drought, wildfire, WNv, and the limited potential to recover from population downturns or extirpations place significant challenges to the persistence of the Bi-State DPS of sage-grouse. One of the most substantial interactions of threats is the cycle between climate change, cheatgrass, and altered fire regimes. Warmer temperatures and greater concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide create conditions favorable to cheatgrass, thus continuing the positive feedback cycle between the invasive annual grass and fire frequency (Chambers and Pellant 2008, p. 32; Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States 2009, p. 83; Halofsky et al. 2018, pp. 276–277). Fewer frost-free days also favor frostsensitive woodland vegetation, which facilitates expansion of woodlands into the sagebrush biome, especially in the southern Great Basin (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 154). Thus, sagebrush habitats in the Great Basin will likely be lost at more southerly latitudes and lowelevation sites, and upper elevation areas will be more susceptible to woodland succession and cheatgrass invasion. In the Bi-State area, substantial changes in vegetation communities could occur between 2025 and 2100 (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 155; Bradley 2010, p. 204; Comer et al. 2013, p. 142; Finch 2012, p. 10). Overall, the cumulative impact of all threats affecting the Bi-State DPS can be influenced by interactions with cooccurring threats, resulting in significant impacts to the resiliency, redundancy, and representation of the DPS as a whole. However, as a result of conservation actions associated with the 2012 BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), impacts from all threats individually and combined are generally being reduced from their current levels and will continue to be reduced even more in the future. Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions The purpose of PECE (68 FR 15100; March 28, 2003) is to ensure consistent and adequate evaluation of recently PO 00000 Frm 00029 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18081 formalized conservation efforts when making listing decisions. The policy provides guidance on how to evaluate conservation efforts that have not yet been implemented or have not yet demonstrated effectiveness. The evaluation focuses on the certainty that the conservation efforts will be implemented and the effectiveness of the conservation efforts in making listing a species unnecessary. The policy presents nine criteria for evaluating the certainty of implementation and six criteria for evaluating the certainty of effectiveness for conservation efforts. These criteria are not considered comprehensive evaluation criteria. The certainty of implementation and the effectiveness of a formalized conservation effort may also depend on species-specific, habitatspecific, location-specific, and effortspecific factors. We consider all appropriate factors in evaluating formalized conservation efforts. The specific circumstances will also determine the amount of information necessary to satisfy these criteria. To consider that a formalized conservation effort contributes to forming a basis for not listing a species, or listing a species as threatened rather than endangered, we must find that the conservation effort is sufficiently certain to be (1) implemented and (2) effective, so as to have contributed to the elimination or adequate reduction of one or more threats to the species identified through section 4(a)(1) analysis under the Act. The elimination or adequate reduction of section 4(a)(1) threats may lead to a determination that the species does not meet the definition of threatened or endangered, or is threatened rather than endangered. An agreement or plan may contain numerous conservation efforts, not all of which are sufficiently certain to be implemented and effective. Those conservation efforts that are not sufficiently certain to be implemented and effective cannot contribute to a determination that listing is unnecessary, or a determination to list as threatened rather than endangered. Regardless of the adoption of a conservation agreement or plan, however, if the best available scientific and commercial data indicate that the species meets the definition of ‘‘endangered species’’ or ‘‘threatened species’’ on the day of the listing decision, then we must proceed with appropriate rulemaking activity under section 4 of the Act. Further, it is important to note that a conservation plan is not required to have absolute certainty of implementation and effectiveness in order to contribute to a E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18082 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules listing determination. Rather, we need to be reasonably certain that the conservation efforts will be implemented and effective such that the threats to the species are reduced or eliminated. Prior to the Bi-State DPS becoming a candidate species in 2010, a variety of conservation initiatives were put in place to conserve the DPS and its habitat. The most significant initiative was the creation of the Nevada Governor’s Sage Grouse Conservation Team in June 2002 who, in cooperation with local stakeholders (the Bi-State Local Area Working Group), developed the first edition of the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan for the BiState area in 2004 (BSLPG 2004, entire) to begin a cooperative effort to address threats to the Bi-State DPS and its habitat. The 2004 Action Plan served as the foundation for the conservation of the Bi-State DPS and its habitat. These efforts were later enhanced by both local- and national-level conservation strategies for sage-grouse conservation (including in the Bi-State area) associated with organizations including the Sage Grouse Initiative, and the BiState LAWG, the latter of which is specifically focused on Bi-State DPS conservation. In December 2011, the Bi-State Executive Oversight Committee (EOC) was formed to leverage collective resources and assemble the best technical support to achieve long-term conservation of the Bi-State DPS and its habitat. The EOC comprises resource agency representatives from the Service, BLM, USFS, NRCS, USGS, NDOW, and CDFW. Recognizing that conservation efforts were already under way by this point in time, the EOC directed a BiState TAC, comprising technical experts/members from each agency, to summarize the conservation actions completed since 2004, and to develop a comprehensive set of strategies, objectives, and actions that would be effective for the long-term conservation of the Bi-State DPS and its habitat. These strategies, objectives, and actions comprise the 2012 BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), which is actively being implemented by the signatory agencies identified above, as well as Mono County, who is committed to implementing all relevant actions within the County (which harbors the two core populations of the Bi-State DPS). A majority of the conservation efforts outlined in the BSAP have already been started or completed (see sections 2.2 and 2.3 of the Action Plan (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 4–13) and the updated project spreadsheet (Bi-State TAC 2019), and the Past and Ongoing VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 Management Efforts discussion in the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 137– 144). Additionally, in February 2013, a Conservation Objectives Team (COT) of State agencies and Service representatives prepared the Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) Conservation Objectives Final Report (COT Report; Service 2013a, entire). This peer-reviewed report serves as a benchmark, delineating reasonable objectives necessary for the conservation and survival of greater sage-grouse, including the Bi-State DPS. The guidance includes management recommendations for the species and its habitat and establishes thresholds based on the degree to which threats need to be reduced or ameliorated to conserve greater sage-grouse so that it would not be in danger of extinction or likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future. Conservation success is expected to be achieved by removing or reducing threats, such that population trends would eventually be stable or increasing, even if numbers are not restored to historical levels. The 2012 BSAP is the main document guiding implementation of conservation actions, and the COT provides additional scientific background and guidelines for those actions. Based on information provided in the 2013 proposed rules and discussions with the EOC, TAC, and LAWG, signatory agencies in 2014 provided a package of information examining their commitments, including staffing and funding, to implement the actions needed for conservation of the Bi-State DPS and its habitat, as outlined in the BSAP. They also provided an updated prioritization of various conservation actions and site-specific locations in which to implement such actions, as needed, based on the Conservation Planning Tool (CPT—linked, datadriven predictive models and interactive maps that identify and rank areas for management actions and provide a basis to evaluate those actions) and the BSAP’s Adaptive Management Strategy (Bi-State EOC 2014, in litt.). The agency commitment letters, which were one component of the information provided by the EOC (BLM 2014a, in litt.; CDFW 2014b, in litt.; Mono County 2014, in litt.; NDOW 2014, in litt.; USDA 2014, in litt.; USGS 2014a, in litt.), outlined many partially completed or new conservation actions that will be implemented and completed to address the threats that were identified in our October 28, 2013, proposed listing rule (78 FR 64358). PO 00000 Frm 00030 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 The EOC evaluated the [then current] Bi-State DPS survey and trend information and concluded that their unified and collaborative approach addresses the conservation needs of the Bi-State DPS (Bi-State EOC 2014, in litt.). Additionally, the EOC concluded that each partner agency is committed to implementing the BSAP and providing the necessary resources to do so regardless of the outcome of the Service’s listing decision (Bi-State EOC 2014, in litt.). In the past year, several agencies have provided updated letters reaffirming their commitment to the BSAP and the TAC (BLM 2019, in litt.; Mono County 2018, in litt.; NDOW 2018, in litt.; NRCS 2018, in litt.; USFS 2018, in litt.). The information provided by the EOC indicates that significant conservation efforts are currently being implemented and that further actions are proposed for implementation in the future. These combined actions address the threats that (synergistically) are resulting in the most severe impacts on the DPS and its habitat now and into the future. These conservation actions are described in our detailed PECE analysis (Service 2019, entire). Using the criteria in our PECE policy (68 FR 15100, March 28, 2003), we evaluated the certainty of implementation (for those measures not already implemented) and effectiveness of conservation measures in the BSAP. Below is a summary of our full PECE analysis, which can be found at http:// www.regulations.gov under either Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0106 or Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018–0107. The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) was designed to reduce or ameliorate threats impacting the Bi-State DPS. We have determined that the conservation efforts in the BSAP meet the PECE criteria with regard to certainty of implementation because of (but not limited to): (1) The agency commitments of staffing and significant funding (over $45 million in the period 2015–2024); and (2) continued participation on the Bi-State EOC, TAC, and LAWG to ensure the most important conservation efforts are occurring at any given time considering ongoing research and monitoring that may influence changes in management strategies, as outlined in the BSAP’s Science-based Adaptive Management Plan and through use of the CPT. Additionally, we have certainty of implementation by the various agencies for conservation efforts that address many different impacts. In particular, we have certainty of implementation for those completed and ongoing conservation efforts expected to provide the most significant E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules conservation value to the Bi-State DPS and its habitat, including actions (as outlined in the agencies’ 2014, 2018, and 2019 commitment letters and work plans, and the comprehensive project database (Bi-State TAC 2019)) that: (1) Protect and restore critical broodrearing habitat (reduces impacts from development/habitat conversion, grazing and rangeland management, and effects resulting from climate change). Lead agencies under the BSAP implementing conservation actions to reduce these impacts are NRCS (e.g., conservation easements, riparian/ meadow restoration), USFS (e.g., private-public land exchanges, riparian/ meadow restoration or improvement, grazing management, wild horse management), BLM (e.g., riparian/ meadow restoration, meadow irrigation and structure repair, racetrack fence removal, wild horse management), and Mono County (e.g., fencing modification). (2) Restore habitat impacted by the spread of invasive, nonnative plants and pinyon-juniper encroachment (reduces impacts from nonnative, invasive and certain native plants, wildfire, predation, and effects resulting from climate change). Lead agencies under the BSAP implementing conservation actions to reduce these impacts are NRCS (e.g., pinyon-juniper removal), USFS (e.g., pinyon-juniper removal, riparian/meadow restoration, invasive weed treatments), and BLM (e.g., pinyon-juniper removal, riparian/ meadow restoration, invasive weed treatments, wildfire fuel break treatments, fencing removal). (3) Ensure stable or increasing sagegrouse populations and population structure to: (a) Prioritize management actions related to synergistic impacts on already fragmented habitat, such that management efforts occur in locations that benefit the DPS the most (reducing impacts such as infrastructure, urbanization, and recreation), and (b) develop and implement sage-grouse translocation from stable subpopulations to other small subpopulations that may be experiencing a high risk of extirpation (reduces impacts from small population size and population structure). Lead agencies under the BSAP implementing conservation actions to reduce these impacts are USGS, NDOW, and CDFW. Actions under way by CDFW include conducting telemetry, research, or monitoring surveys that inform the CPT of adjustments to the BSAP conservation strategy that provide the greatest benefit to the DPS or its habitat (see section 6.5 in the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 75–76) and VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 implementing translocation programs from stable subpopulations to subpopulations that may be at high risk of extinction). Actions under way by BLM include permanent and seasonal road closures, nesting habitat seasonal closures, and fencing removal or marking; actions under way by USFS include permanent and seasonal road closures and power line removal. Actions under way by Mono County include coordination with private landowners to encourage reduced infrastructure and closure and relocation of the Long Valley landfill. We also note that BLM, USFS, NRCS, and Mono County have provided specific plans and timetables laying out various conservation efforts for implementation from 2015 through 2024 (BLM 2014a, in litt.; Mono County 2014, in litt.; USDA 2014, in litt.), while CDFW, NDOW, and USGS have provided textual descriptions of their intended actions and contributions from 2015 through 2024 (CDFW 2014b, in litt.; NDOW 2014, in litt.; USGS 2014a, in litt.); many agencies sent letters reaffirming their commitment to the EOC and the TAC (BLM 2019, entire; Mono County 2018, in litt.; NDOW 2018, in litt.; NRCS 2018, in litt.; USFS 2018, in litt.). Additionally, the collaboration between the Service, BLM, USFS, NRCS, Mono County, USGS, NDOW, and CDFW requires regular meetings and involvement from the parties, whether at the level of the BiState EOC, TAC, or LAWG, in order to implement the BSAP fully. These meetings have occurred regularly since 2014. We are confident that the conservation efforts (as outlined in the BSAP, agency commitment letters, and our detailed PECE analysis, as well as the TAC comprehensive project database) will continue to be implemented because we have a documented track record of active participation and implementation by the signatory agencies and commitments to continue implementation into the future. Conservation measures, such as pinyon-juniper removal, establishment of conservation easements for critical brood-rearing habitat, cheatgrass removal, permanent and seasonal closure of roads near leks, removal and marking of fencing, and restoration of riparian/meadow habitat have been completed over the past 15 years, are currently occurring, and have been prioritized and placed on the agency’s implementation schedules for future implementation. Agencies have committed to remain participants and continue conservation of the DPS and its habitat. The BSAP has sufficient PO 00000 Frm 00031 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18083 methods (science advisors, the CPT, and a Science-based Adaptive Management Strategy) for determining the type and location of the most beneficial conservation actions to be implemented, including continued receipt of new population and threats information in the future that will guide conservation efforts. We have determined that the conservation efforts in the BSAP meet the PECE criteria with regard to certainty of effectiveness to remove or reduce threats facing the Bi-State DPS because of, but not limited to, past project effectiveness within the Bi-State area or within sagebrush habitat areas across the range of the greater sagegrouse, and documented effective methodologies for addressing the threats identified as impacting the Bi-State DPS. For example: (1) Development and Habitat Conversion—Conservation efforts to reduce development and habitat conversion are anticipated to occur in critical brood-rearing habitats across five PMUs, including through conservation easements and land exchanges (see detailed PECE analysis, Section 3.0). In total, 12,243 ha (30,254 ac) have been entered into conservation easements or acquired through land purchase or exchange since 2012 (BiState TAC 2018, p. 25). Our analysis of the database and the agency commitment letters reveals partially completed and future conservation efforts will occur in the Pine Nut, Bodie, Desert Creek-Fales, Mt. Grant, and South Mono PMUs, totaling approximately 7,284 ha (18,000 ac) of lands identified as important for conservation by the TAC. These efforts have funding obligated and are in various stages of easement development, with many anticipated to be completed in a few years (BSAP 2019). Further, an effort to acquire approximately 5,870 ha (14,500 ac) of lands in the Pine Nut PMU by the Carson City BLM has been approved and is anticipated to finalize in spring of 2020. These areas include high-priority targets identified in the BSAP, and are consistent with the COT Report’s ex-urban conservation objective to limit urban and exurban development in sage-grouse habitats (Service 2013a, p. 50). In total, approximately 31 percent of all private lands containing suitable sage-grouse habitat across the Bi-State are enrolled under an easement program or have been acquired by federal and State agencies and this number is expected to increase to 57 percent when combining additional efforts that are ongoing and reasonably likely to occur. Furthermore, these acquisitions represent approximately 67 E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18084 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules percent of private lands identified as important for conservation of the species in the 2012 Action Plan. These actions are considered effective at reducing impacts from development and habitat conversion because conserving and managing lands in perpetuity are the most successful tools for permanent protection of critical sage-grouse habitat (as demonstrated by Pocewicz et al. (2011) in Wyoming). (2) Grazing and Rangeland Management—Conservation actions under the BSAP continue to reduce grazing impacts and ensure management of livestock consistent with the needs of the DPS. This includes 46 projects across the range of the DPS that have been completed since 2012, including (but not limited to): Maintaining, improving, or restoring riparian/ meadow sites impacted by grazing animals across multiple PMUs, improving BLM grazing allotment permit terms and conditions to protect riparian areas, and reducing the risk of overgrazing that can facilitate the dominance of cheatgrass in upland habitats (Bi-State TAC 2019, in litt.). An additional 32 projects focused on maintaining area closures to permitted livestock, monitoring compliance with permitted terms and conditions, maintenance of ‘‘let-down’’ fencing, and meadow irrigation have also been conducted on an annual and ongoing basis since 2012. The conservation efforts database identifies seven projects that are either in progress or not yet started, including new grazing permit processing and the restoration of degraded sagebrush and meadow habitat at several sites in the Desert-Creek Fales, Bodie, and Mount Grant PMUs (Bi-State TAC 2019, in litt.). Additionally, the BSAP identifies a specific strategy (MER6) to address grazing issues related to wild horse populations, which are known to negatively impact meadows and brood-rearing habitats used by the Bi-State DPS (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 92). The effectiveness of these grazing and rangeland management conservation efforts are confirmed by published literature (Boyd et al. 2014, entire; Stevens et al. 2012, p. 301; Davies et al. 2011, pp. 2575–2576; Pyke 2011, p. 537), which articulate the value of maintaining functional working landscapes that include grazing activities with site-specific management as necessary (e.g., restoring meadows to improve sage-grouse brood-rearing habitat) to ensure longevity of sagebrush ecosystems and the habitat areas deemed most critical to the Bi-State DPS. (3) Nonnative Invasive Plants and Native Woodland Succession—Because VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 both nonnative invasive plants and particularly native woodland species (pinyon-juniper encroachment) displace the sagebrush ecosystem necessary for the Bi-State DPS, significant conservation efforts are being and will continue to be implemented to address these problems. With regard to nonnative invasive plants, the Bi-State EOC and TAC recognize that effective control programs can be labor intensive and costly; however, the Bi-State EOC and TAC believes there is value for the Bi-State DPS in being strategic in implementing the conservation efforts that potentially reduce the impact these plants have on the DPS’s habitat (e.g., treating nonnative, invasive plants in strategic areas to potentially reduce the likelihood of an outbreak or improve a priority habitat area) (Espinosa 2014, in litt.). Since 2012, chemical or mechanical treatments of nonnative plant species have occurred on nearly 526 ha (1,300 ac), and weed monitoring was completed on 858 ha (2,121 ac) across multiple PMUs (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 30). Two projects are currently under way or planned for the future that target invasive, nonnative plants on more than 243 ha (600 ac) in the Desert Creek-Fales and Pine Nut PMUs (cheatgrass is considered a high threat in Pine Nut compared to other PMUs). Additionally, the USFS committed to control least 40.5 ha (100 ac) of cheatgrass each year from 2015 through 2024 in the Pine Nut PMU (USDA 2014, in litt.). While combatting invasive annual grasses remains a challenge, the most effective method to date is through the retention of a healthy native perennial understory, which is the primary objective of both the TAC and LAWG (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 30). Methods of active restoration of degraded sites can be effective through herbicide or mechanical means but require additional actions such as reseeding with perennial species (Frost and Launchbaugh 2003, pp. 43–44; Jones et al. 2015, p. 17). With regard to pinyon-juniper encroachment, ecologists have developed clear and effective recommendations to target appropriate phases of encroachment (specific age and density structure) to ensure restoration occurs in sagebrush and sage-grouse habitat areas that are most meaningful (e.g., critical brood-rearing habitat, corridors in fragmented areas) (e.g., Bates et al. 2011, pp. 476–479; Davies et al. 2011, pp. 2577–2578). Accordingly, BLM, USFS, and NRCS are strategically targeting phases I and II pinyon-juniper encroachment in the BiState area, which is supported by PO 00000 Frm 00032 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 literature as effective with careful planning and execution (e.g., Bates et al. 2011, pp. 476–479; Davies et al. 2011, pp. 2577–2578). As of December 2018, pinyon and juniper removal has taken place on more than 18,700 ha (46,400 ac) within or adjacent to sage-grouse habitat, including minor projects to remove phase I tree encroachment from nesting habitat to more intensive mechanical removal within both phase I and phase II areas to expand available sage-grouse habitat and enhance existing conditions within nesting, brood-rearing, and winter habitats, representing approximately 25 percent of all conifer treatments proposed in the 2012 Action Plan (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 27.). Furthermore, conifer treatment maintenance has been completed on more than 3,000 ha (7,400 ac). Approximately 8,245 ha (20,373 ac) of additional conifer treatments are currently in progress and have analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) either completed or under development (Bi-State TAC 2018, in litt.). Subsequent to our prior withdrawal of the 2013 proposed listing rule, several studies have been published that demonstrate the effectiveness of pinyonjuniper removal across the range of the greater sage-grouse. These studies have demonstrated that: Sage-grouse readily nest in conifer treatment sites after trees had been removed (Severson et al. 2017, p. 53); woodland treatments increased suitable available breeding habitat and enhanced nest and brood success (Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63); and removal of pinyon-juniper trees encroaching into sagebrush vegetation communities can increase sage-grouse population growth through improving juvenile, yearling, and adult survival as well as improving nest survival (Olsen 2019, pp. 21–22). Additionally, sagegrouse population growth was 11.2 percent higher in treatment versus control sites within 5 years of conifer removal (Olsen 2019, pp. 21–22). Thus, we conclude that pinyon-juniper removal is effective in restoring areas impacted by woodland succession such that they become suitable and productive for sage-grouse, reducing the magnitude of the threat on the species. (4) Infrastructure—Conservation efforts to reduce infrastructure are focused on roads, power lines, fencing, and a landfill. Permanent and seasonal road closures over a minimum of 2,137 miles in the Bodie, Desert Creek-Fales, Mount Grant, South Mono, and Pine Nut PMUs will reduce the likelihood of mortality and improve vital rates for sage-grouse near leks, including nesting and brood-rearing areas. Nearly 22 miles E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules of power line and fencing removal projects have occurred in the Bodie, Pine Nut, and South Mono PMUs, and approximately 141 miles of fencing have been marked or modified across all PMUS. Some of these projects require annual maintenance, such as let-down fences, and three projects that will mark and modify fencing in the Pine Nut, Desert Creek-Fales, or South Mono PMUs are scheduled to be completed in the future. Additionally, a landfill in the Long Valley area of the South Mono PMU is a significant source of predators for one of the two core populations of the Bi-State DPS; Mono County is undergoing the initial stages of relocating this landfill (Bi-State TAC 2014, in litt.; Mono County 2014, in litt.: Mono County 2018, in litt.). Removing or modifying the types of infrastructure described above will be effective at reducing the amount of invasive plants present along or around developed areas (Manier et al. 2014, pp. 167–170), reducing existing habitat fragmentation and potential vectors for invasive plants (Gelbard and Belnap 2003, pp. 424–431); removing some edge effects that can lead to avoidance of nesting in suitable habitat areas (Aldridge and Boyce 2007, pp. 516– 523); reducing or removing anthropogenic noise that disturbs normal behavior patterns of sage-grouse (Blickley 2013, pp. 54–65); reducing collision-related mortalities (associated specifically with fencing) (Stevens et al. 2012, pp. 299–302); and making currently undesirable habitat areas (that attract predators) favorable by sagegrouse as nest and brood sites by reducing predator attractants (e.g., power lines, landfill) (Dinkins et al. 2012, pp. 605–608). (5) Wildfire—Fires have consumed some important habitat areas within the range of the Bi-State DPS, primarily within the Pine Nut PMU, but also recently as a result of the Spring Peak fire within the Bodie and Mount Grant PMUs and the Boot Fire in the Desert Creek–Fales PMU (Espinosa 2014, in litt.: Service 2020, p. 26). Site restoration activities are planned to be implemented following wildfires by utilizing the CPT to identify sites that are the best candidates for enhancing or returning sagebrush habitats to conditions that benefit sage-grouse (Espinosa 2014, in litt.). Restoration efforts will be tracked for success, noting that some actions (e.g., seeding) vary in success rate, given variables such as elevation, precipitation, and site-conditions prior to a fire (Espinosa 2014, in litt.). Recovery of functional sagebrush habitats following wildfire and restoration actions can take decades VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 (potentially several sage-grouse generations) to be realized, and requires monitoring to assure conservation objectives are met (such as ensuring appropriate levels of sagebrush and native herbs are established, and reducing nonnative plant dominance) (Arkle et al. 2014, p. 17). Additionally, the Bi-State TAC currently utilizes the CPT and field reconnaissance to maximize the likelihood of enhancing the desired sagebrush community composition post-fuels reduction treatment activities (Espinosa 2014, in litt.). As of December 2018, restoration following wildfire has resulted in fire rehabilitation treatments on more than 7,690 ha (19,000 ac) (Bi-State TAC 2018, in litt.). (6) Small Population Size and Population Structure—The BSAP specifically identifies a strategy (MER7) to address small population size issues in the Bi-State area, by identifying potential sage-grouse population augmentation and reintroduction sites, developing translocation guidelines, and potentially implementing augmentation and reintroduction efforts (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 93). Specific actions include developing contingency plans for the Parker Meadows and Gaspipe Spring subpopulations in the South Mono PMU, and populations in the Pine Nut PMU; and evaluating the need for augmentation for the Fales population of the Desert Creek-Fales PMU, the Powell Mountain area of the Mount Grant PMU, the McBride Flat/ Sagehen Spring area in the Truman Meadows portion of the White Mountains PMU, and Coyote Flat of the South Mono PMU. In 2016, CDFW began implementing a plan to translocate sage-grouse from stable subpopulations in the Bi-State area to the Parker Meadows subpopulation in the South Mono PMU (Bi-State TAC 2014, in litt.; CDFW 2014b, in litt.; Mathews et al. 2018, pp. 14–34). Prior to initiating this effort, members of the Bi-State TAC conducted a site visit to assess habitat condition and conducted removal of conifer trees that had become established in proximity to the lek and brood-rearing meadow. Preliminary results suggest that translocated birds are increasingly remaining in the Parker Meadows area. Additionally, probability of nest initiation and nest success have increased, brood success is on par with the remainder of the DPS, and lek counts have increased over the past two years (Bi-State TAC 2018, pp. 13–14; Mathews et al. 2018, pp. 28–34). Efforts on this current action are directly relevant to future conservation efforts for other unstable subpopulations. It is PO 00000 Frm 00033 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18085 reasonable to assume future translocations in the Bi-State area have a high likelihood of effectiveness given continued careful consideration to all the variables (including translocation that would occur concurrent with other threat reduction activities, such as conifer removal or predator control), and published literature that also indicates success of translocated sagegrouse when successful translocation methodology is followed (Musil et al. 1993, pp. 89–90; Reese and Connelly 1997, pp. 239–240; Hennefer 2007, pp. 33–37; Baxter et al. 2008, pp. 184–185). For details of additional conservation efforts related to effects associated with climate change, disease, predation, and other threats, please see the full PECE analysis (Service 2019, entire). We will have an ongoing role in monitoring the implementation and effectiveness of the partially completed and future conservation efforts given our regular participation with the BiState EOC, TAC, and LAWG, participation in providing updated versions of the BSAP, and by reviewing any monitoring and research reports. We are satisfied that the conservation efforts evaluated will be effective in reducing threats to the Bi-State DPS and its habitat; however, to do so, they do not need to be applied on every acre of suitable and unsuitable sage-grouse habitat. For instance, not all of the native pinyon-juniper vegetation needs to be removed, such as in areas within the range of the Bi-State DPS where pinyon-juniper historically occurred. Rather the effort needs, and is expected, to be implemented in areas that are most likely to support sage-grouse (postremoval) and critical areas that address habitat fragmentation or reducedconnectivity issues. These efforts need to occur at a rate that significantly reduces further habitat losses, which is consistent with the objective to address pinyon-juniper expansion provided in the March 22, 2013, COT Report for conservation of the greater sage-grouse (Service 2013a, pp. 47–48), including the Bi-State DPS. We have determined that the agencies’ resource commitments (e.g., staffing and funding, including more than $45 million from 2015 through 2024), and a demonstrated record of implementation will ensure continued conservation of habitat for the Bi-State DPS. The BSAP has sufficient monitoring and reporting requirements to ensure that the proposed future conservation measures are implemented as planned and are effective at removing threats to the DPS and its habitat. The collaboration between the Service, BLM, USFS, NRCS, Mono County, USGS, and E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 18086 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 the States of Nevada and California requires regular team meetings (Bi-State EOC, TAC, and EOC), and continued involvement of all parties will occur (BiState EOC 2014, in litt.) in order to implement the BSAP fully. We find that the future conservation efforts in the BSAP meet the PECE criteria for certainty of implementation and effectiveness, and can be considered as part of the basis for our final listing determination for the Bi-State DPS. In conclusion, we find that the conservation efforts in the BSAP, and as outlined in the agencies’ 2014, 2018, and 2019 commitment letters, meet the PECE criteria with regard to certainty of implementation (for those measures not already implemented) and effectiveness and can be considered as part of the basis for our listing determination for the Bi-State DPS. Our full analysis of the 2012 BSAP, and additional materials submitted to the Service as mentioned above, pursuant to PECE can be found at http://www.regulations.gov under either Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018– 0106 or Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2018– 0107. Summary of Comments and Recommendations As discussed above in Previous Federal Actions, the Bi-State DPS of the greater sage-grouse has a long and complex listing history. This has included multiple public comment periods since the proposed rules were published on October 28, 2013 (78 FR 64328, 78 FR 64358). In the period 2013–2015, we published five documents announcing to the public new comment periods, extensions to the comment periods, new information that became available, and a 6-month extension of making the final listing determination (78 FR 77087, December 20, 2013; 79 FR 19314, April 8, 2014; 79 FR 26684, May 9, 2014; 79 FR 31901, June 3, 2014; and 79 FR 45420, August 5, 2014). We held one public hearing in Minden, Nevada, on May 28, 2014, and one public hearing held in Bishop, California, on May 29, 2014. Newspaper notices inviting general public comment and advertisement of the information and public hearings was published in The Inyo Register, The Record Courier, and the Reno-Gazette Journal. When we reinstated the proposed listing rule on April 11, 2019, we reopened the comment period for 60 days (84 FR 14909); the comment period opened on April 12, 2019, and closed on June 11, 2019. When we announced the 6-month extension on October 1, 2019 (84 FR 52058), we reopened the public comment period for an additional 30 days; the comment period closed on VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 October 31, 2019. In all comment periods, we also contacted appropriate Federal and State agencies, Tribes, scientific experts and organizations, and other interested parties and invited them to comment on the proposal. We did not receive any requests for further public hearings. Between 2013 and 2015, we received more than 6,400 public comments on the proposed rules. In 2019, we have received more than 2,600 public comments in response to the reinstatement of the proposed rules and the 6-month extension. Submitted comments were both for and against listing the species. All substantive information provided during the comment periods and relevant to this finding has either been incorporated directly into this withdrawal or is addressed below. For additional responses to comments for which there is no updated information since 2015, please see the previous withdrawal of the proposed listing rule published on April 23, 2015 (80 FR 22828). We also received a few comments related to the proposed 4(d) rule, and more than 200 comment letters both in support of and opposition to the proposed critical habitat designation; however, given the decision to withdraw the listing proposal, no further assessment of the proposed 4(d) rule and critical habitat designation is necessary at this time. (1) Comment: Several commenters inquired as to how the BLM RMPs, USFS LRMPs, the BSAP, and the plans developed by the LADWP are used in our evaluation of existing regulatory mechanisms. Commenters also questioned the effectiveness of these plans and of the effectiveness of regulatory mechanisms in general. Other commenters suggested that existing regulatory mechanisms are adequate. Our Response: Existing regulatory mechanisms that could provide some protection for greater sage-grouse in the Bi-State area include: (1) Local land use laws, processes, and ordinances; (2) State laws and regulations; and (3) Federal laws and regulations. Regulatory mechanisms, if they exist, may preclude the need for listing if such mechanisms are judged to adequately address the threats to the species such that listing is not warranted. Conversely, threats on the landscape continue to affect the species and may be exacerbated when not addressed by existing regulatory mechanisms, or when the existing mechanisms are not adequate (or not adequately implemented or enforced). We use an inherently qualitative approach to evaluate existing regulatory PO 00000 Frm 00034 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 mechanisms when conducting a threats analysis for a proposed listing. In general, this means that we assess language in an existing mechanism/plan as well as any pertinent decisions instituted based on that language (track record) and evaluate it against the best available science informing species conservation. For the local land use regulatory mechanisms, the regulations in some counties identify the need for natural resource conservation and in some instances (such as Mono County) attempt to minimize impacts of development through zoning restrictions. To our knowledge, however, none preclude development, nor do they provide for monitoring of the loss of sage-grouse habitats. Similarly, State laws and regulations are general in nature and provide flexibility in implementation, and do not provide specific direction to State wildlife agencies, although they can occasionally afford regulatory authority over habitat preservation (e.g., creation of habitat easements and land acquisitions). With respect to Federal laws, we note that recent LRMP and RMP amendments adopted by the Humboldt-Toiyabe and Inyo National Forests and BLM’s Carson City District and Tonopah Field Office in the Bi-State area appear to offer significant improved certainty toward sage-grouse conservation. These changes in conjunction with existing RMPs and LRMPs, with demonstrated track records of effectiveness (such as the BLM Bishop Field Office’s RMP), supports a conclusion that currently existing Federal regulations are effective regulatory mechanisms. Federally managed lands account for approximately 89 percent of the Bi-State DPS habitat. Additionally, we note that recent changes to RMPs and LRMPs associated with greater sage-grouse conservation across its range in the western United States do not apply to the Bi-State DPS. For additional detail see the Existing Regulatory Mechanisms section in the 2019 Species Report. Since the proposed rule, we received additional information on Federal regulatory mechanisms. Jointly, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and the Carson City and Tonopah Offices of the BLM have developed new Land Use Plan Amendments (HTNF 2016, entire; BLM 2016, entire). The amendments more fully address conservation of the Bi-State area by providing specific direction to management of the DPS and its habitat, including (but not limited to) direct effects (such as land disturbance) and indirect effects (such as noise) caused by management of: Recreation, grazing, weeds, wild horses and burros, minerals, fire management, and rights- E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules of-way. Furthermore in 2019, the Inyo National Forest completed a revised Land Management Plan, which also improves management consideration of sage-grouse conservation (USFS 2019, entire). For additional discussion on existing regulatory mechanisms and our conservation efforts analysis, see discussions in Summary of Factors Affecting the Species and the Existing Regulatory Mechanisms and Conservation Efforts sections in the 2019 Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 124–147). Therefore, we conclude that the BLM and USFS Land Use Plan amendments will limit future additional impacts caused by discretionary actions, thus greatly enhancing the conservation afforded to the Bi-State DPS and its habitat. The 2012 BSAP is not a regulatory mechanism. As such, we have evaluated it through our PECE policy, as described in Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, above. Since we have concluded that it is sufficiently certain to be both implemented and effective, we have considered how the measures included in the plan are ameliorating the magnitude of threats. The LADWP plans are also not regulatory mechanisms, and we have evaluated them as an existing and ongoing conservation measure. (2) Comment: Several commenters stated that conservation efforts to date have not been adequate, as threats remain on the landscape. Our Response: While considerable effort has been expended over the past several years to address some of the known threats throughout portions or all of the Bi-State DPS’s estimated occupied range, threats to the continued viability of the DPS into the future remain. The development of the 2012 BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) has highlighted the importance of not only habitat restoration and enhancement but also the role of the States and other partners in reducing many of the known threats to the Bi-State DPS. Cooperative, committed efforts by Federal and State agencies, as well as Mono County will result in full implementation of the 2012 BSAP, including funding and staffing commitments from 2015 through 2024 to address the most significant impacts to the DPS and its habitat (BLM 2014a, in litt.; BLM 2019, in litt.; CDFW 2014b, in litt.; Mono County 2014, in litt.; Mono County 2018, in litt.; NDOW 2014, in litt.; NDOW 2018, in litt.; NRCS 2018, in litt.; USDA 2014, in litt.; USFS 2018, in litt.; USGS 2014a, in litt.). Such plans will help provide the ongoing, targeted implementation of effective VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 conservation actions that are essential for the conservation of the Bi-State DPS and its habitat into the future. We discuss the various conservation efforts occurring currently and into the future within the estimated occupied range of the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse in more detail in the detailed PECE analysis (Service 2019, entire) under Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions. (3) Comment: A few commenters suggest that the Bi-State DPS is not a genetically unique subspecies or that it does not meet our standard for recognition as a DPS. Our Response: In our 12-month finding on petitions to list three entities of sage-grouse (75 FR 13910, March 23, 2010), we found that the Bi-State population of sage-grouse meets our criteria as a DPS of the greater sagegrouse under Service policy (61 FR 4722, February 7, 1996). This determination was based principally on genetic information, where the DPS was found to be both markedly separated and significant to the remainder of the sage-grouse taxon. The Bi-State DPS defines the far southwestern limit of the species’ range along the border of eastern California and western Nevada (Stiver et al. 2006, pp. 1–11). Sagegrouse in the Bi-State area contain a large number of unique genetic haplotypes not found elsewhere within the range of the species (Benedict et al. 2003, p. 306; Oyler-McCance et al. 2005, p. 1300; Oyler-McCance and Quinn 2011, p. 92, Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 7). The genetic diversity present in the Bi-State area population is comparable to other populations, suggesting that the differences are not due to a genetic bottleneck or founder event (Oyler-McCance and Quinn 2011, p. 91; Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 8). These studies provide evidence that the present genetic uniqueness exhibited by Bi-State area sage-grouse developed over thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of years, hence, prior to the Euro-American settlement (Benedict et al. 2003, p. 308; Oyler-McCance et al. 2005, p. 1307; Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 9). The available genetic information demonstrates that the BiState sage-grouse are both discrete from other greater sage-grouse populations and are genetically unique. Therefore, we believe the best scientific and commercial data available continues to clearly demonstrate that the Bi-State sage-grouse meet both the discreteness and significance criteria to be designated as a distinct population segment. (4) Comment: Several commenters stated that the 2013 proposed listing PO 00000 Frm 00035 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18087 rule dismissed past conservation measures without fairly addressing their breadth, effectiveness, and chance of success. Further, they submit that the Service must evaluate the conservation measures through (at minimum) an analysis consistent with PECE and must fully consider how conservation measures will reduce or remove threats. The commenters believe that a fair evaluation of the past conservation efforts would demonstrate that they are sufficient to protect the Bi-State DPS. Alternatively, several commenters argue that past conservation efforts, while well-intended, have been inadequate to provide sufficient conservation for the DPS. Further, the commenters contend that the 2012 BSAP is voluntary in nature and does not meet the PECE standard, and that populations have continued to decline since the implementation of the BSAP. Our Response: In this finding, we acknowledge and commend the commitment of many partners in implementing numerous conservation actions within the range of the Bi-State DPS. The PECE policy applies to formalized conservation efforts that have not yet been implemented or those that have been implemented but have not yet demonstrated whether they are effective at the time of listing. Our analysis of all conservation efforts currently in place and under development for the future is described in detail above in Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions. The effect of conservation efforts and regulatory mechanisms on the status of a species is considered under Summary of Biological Status and Threats. In this document, we considered whether formalized conservation efforts such as the BSAP are included as part of the baseline through the analysis of the five listing factors or are appropriate for consideration under our PECE policy. All participating agencies have provided letters affirming their commitment to the plan, as well as funding and implementation schedules (Service 2019, entire). Due to these and other considerations as outlined in our detailed PECE analysis, we concluded that the 2012 BSAP is highly certain to be implemented. We acknowledge that the most recent population studies show that some sagegrouse populations in the Bi-State DPS have declined (Coates et al. 2020, Table 3). However, the Bi-State DPS as a whole is showing a stable, long-term trend. Conservation measures are in place to counter negative population growth (such as the Parker Meadows translocation project). Currently, 53 of E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18088 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules the 76 high-priority projects have been initiated representing 68 percent of the projects originally identified (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 3). Twelve projects (17 percent) were evaluated and determined to lie outside of occupied sage-grouse habitat and were subsequently removed from the list of priorities. Furthermore, 142 of the 159 identified actions in the BSAP have been initiated and are in stages of completion, meaning they are in progress, ongoing, occur annually, or have been evaluated as part of the planning process (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 45; Service 2019, p. 33). Given that these measures are still ongoing, we do not expect that positive gains from these measures would yet be reflected in population studies. Overall, due to many factors as outlined in our detailed PECE analysis, we concluded that future conservation measures are highly certain to be effective in ameliorating the threats currently impacting the Bi-State DPS. Therefore, we find the Bi-State DPS is not in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and is not likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future (threatened), throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and we are withdrawing the proposed listing, 4(d), and critical habitat rules for the BiState DPS (see Determination of Status for the Bi-State DPS below). (5) Comment: Numerous commenters suggested that predators are a significant threat and that we did not account for this impact accurately. Further, many commenters suggested predator removal programs should be implemented. Alternatively, several commenters suggested that predator control is not sustainable and may have negative and unintended consequences. Our Response: As discussed in Predation, we recognize that predation of sage-grouse is the most commonly identified cause of direct mortality during all life stages. However, we note that sage-grouse have coevolved with a suite of predators (Schroeder et al. 1999, pp. 9–10), yet the species has persisted. Thus, this form of mortality is apparently offset by other aspects of the species life-history under ‘‘normal’’ conditions. However, when nonendemic predators are introduced into a system (one with which the prey species did not evolve (e.g., domestic cats and dogs)), or when other factors influence the balance between endemic predator and prey interactions, such that a predator gains a competitive advantage, predation may overwhelm a prey species life-history strategy and ultimately influence population growth and persistence (Braun 1998, pp. 145– VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 146; Holloran 2005, p. 58; Coates 2007, p. 155; Bui 2009, p. 2; Coates and Delehanty 2010, p. 243; Howe et al. 2014, p. 41). Therefore, we agree that increases in sage-grouse predator abundance and predation rates are a concern by potentially negatively affecting population growth. However, we maintain that predation is a proximal cause of mortality and increases in predator abundance and predation rates are ultimately caused by changes in habitat conditions, which positively influence predator occurrence or efficiency. See also the Urbanization and Habitat Conversion, Infrastructure, and Predation sections in the associated Species Report for a detailed analysis on the impacts of predation (Service 2020, pp. 39–60, 110–117). As a point of clarification, we agree that targeted, short-term predator removal programs may be warranted in instances where habitat restoration cannot be achieved in a timely manner. In these instances, predation rates and predator abundance may be artificially high and high sage-grouse mortality may be a concern. However, data do not appear to suggest that removal programs are sustainable or that they result in consistent increases in sage-grouse numbers (Hagen 2011, pp. 98–99). We intend to explore the potential benefits and negative ramifications caused by predator control through our continued coordination efforts with the Bi-State TAC and LAWG for continued conservation of the Bi-State DPS. In 2018, a research project was initiated to explore the potential benefits gained through predator management. Specifically, this project targeted nesting common ravens in Long Valley associated with the local landfill through egg-oiling to prevent successful egg hatching. While final results will not be known for several years, preliminary results suggest improved nesting success of sage-grouse in Long Valley in the spring of 2019. (6) Comment: Numerous commenters suggested that the degree of impact we assign to specific threat factors is not accurate and suggested revisions. Further, several commenters identified an inconsistency in our proposed listing rule associated with our assignment of significance level to grazing and rangeland management. Our Response: The threats analysis and associated discussion of the degree of impact that is described in the Species Report (2013, 2014, and 2019 versions), our 2013 proposed listing rule, our 2015 proposed withdrawal, and this document are based upon the best available scientific and commercial information. No additional information PO 00000 Frm 00036 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 or assessments were provided by the commenters to support their claim that the analysis and conclusions in our proposed listing rule were inaccurate. However, where applicable in our revised 2019 Species Report and this document, we have updated our threats analyses based on new information received since the proposed listing rule published on October 28, 2013 (78 FR 64358). With regard to potential inconsistencies in the threats analysis in the proposed rule, we made corrections to any inconsistencies identified by commenters and as applicable in both the revised 2019 Species Report and this document. Specifically, our 2013 proposed listing rule identified livestock grazing as a significant threat in the summary of threats section but did not reach this conclusion in the livestock grazing section of the document. We have corrected that error in this finding. (7) Comment: One commenter suggested that the potential threat to sage-grouse posed by fencing can be mitigated. Alternatively, another commenter stated that fencing is a major threat and expressed concern that there are no programs in place to require fencing to be removed. Our Response: We agree that certain practices, such as making fences more visible to sage-grouse through the use of visual markers or employing the use of alternative fence designs, such as letdown fencing, can reduce certain impacts to the Bi-State DPS caused by fencing, specifically collision. However, we do not anticipate that these efforts will completely ameliorate the threat of collision. For example, one study found that marking fences reduced the fence collision rate during the sage-grouse breeding season by 83 percent (Stevens et al. 2012, p. 301). Nevertheless, collisions still occurred at marked fences, especially those in close proximity to spring breeding sites, suggesting marking alone did not completely resolve the concern. Furthermore, while direct mortality through collision may be minimized by these approaches, indirect impacts caused by predation and other forms of habitat degradation may remain (see the discussion of impacts due to fences under Infrastructure above and in the 2019 Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 54–57)). Therefore, a combination of approaches to managing fences and their impacts needs to be applied, which may include removal. These efforts are currently ongoing in the BiState area (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 33). With regard to the comment that fencing may be considered a major threat, we have described the impacts E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules that may occur from fencing based on the best scientific and commercial information available. We found that fencing impacts are widespread but generally minor. In addition, management actions are being undertaken to further ameliorate this threat. For example, approximately 20 km (13 mi) of fencing has been removed or modified in the Bi-State area, and approximately 101 km (63 mi) of fencing has been marked with visual flight diverters. Furthermore, the BLM RMP and USFS LRMP amendments prepared by the Humboldt-Toiyabe and Inyo National Forests, and the Carson City District and Tonopah Field Office of the BLM, specifically identify restrictions on new fence installation and removal or marking of fences already in place within 1.9–3.2 km (1.2– 2 mi) of an active lek. The removal of fencing throughout all of the Bi-State area is not feasible. However, consideration of alternative approaches to traditional fencing would help reduce impacts of fencing to sagegrouse (for example, use of let-down fence designs), and we will continue to work with partners to encourage implementation of reduced or alternative approaches to fencing in areas that are most important to the BiState DPS. Conservation efforts are under way currently and into the future to reduce fencing impacts in priority areas (e.g., BLM’s removal of racetrack fencing in Bodie PMU, marking or modifying fencing in Pine Nut and South Mono PMUs) (Bi-State TAC 2018, entire). (8) Comment: A few commenters suggested woodlands and woodland expansion is natural and should be left alone. Specifically, commenters speculated that forest occurrence is a reestablishment of sites that were harvested during historic mining in the latter part of the 1800s or that woodlands are naturally occurring. Further, the commenters suggested that woodland treatments are not effective at positively influencing sage-grouse population performance. Our Response: Across the Bi-State area, we estimate that approximately 40 percent of the historically available sagebrush habitat has been usurped by woodland succession over the past 150 years (USGS 2012, unpublished data). As described in the 2019 Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 73–79) and in Nonnative Invasive Plants and Native Woodland Succession, the cause of this increase is likely multifaceted but most certainly includes recovery from past disturbances such as mining. However, the support for this single mechanism is not apparent. For example, while there VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 are locations within the Bi-State area where there are stumps from harvested trees attributable to the mining era, most locations do not contain evidence of past tree cutting. Furthermore, genetic evidence suggests that sage-grouse populations contained within the BiState area were historically more connected and that these connections began to erode relatively recently (Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, pp. 10–11). This finding suggests that barriers to movement, such as trees, were less restrictive historically as compared to today. No additional information was received by the commenter or others since the proposed listing rule published that would modify our understanding of this threat. Therefore, based on the best available information, we conclude that woodland expansion is a significant threat in the Bi-State area as it has reduced habitat availability and negatively influenced population connectivity. As a result, conservation efforts are under way currently and into the future to reduce potential woodland succession impacts in priority areas (e.g., BLM, USFS, and NRCS treatments of phase I and II pinyon-juniper encroachment in all six PMUs) (phases of pinyon-juniper encroachment are generally defined by percent tree cover and tree age in the affected area) (Miller et al. 2008, p. 5; Bi-State TAC 2018, pp. 26–29). Ultimately, the cause of woodland encroachment becomes less relevant in light of its implications as the response to tree presence by sage-grouse is uniformly negative (Commons et al. 1999, p. 238; Doherty et al. 2008, p. 187; Freese 2009, pp. 84–85, 89–90; Casazza et al. 2011, p. 159; Baruch-Mordo et al. 2013, p. 237; Prochazka et al. 2017, p. 46). Therefore, to reduce this impact on the Bi-State DPS and its habitat, as described in the BSAP, land managers should consider management of pinyonjuniper encroachment in specific areas that would most benefit the Bi-State DPS (e.g., lek sites, migration corridors, and brood-rearing habitat) and that is consistent with our understanding of a specific site’s vegetation potential. The removal of trees conveys positive benefits to sage-grouse stemming from increased habitat availability, increased adult and nest survival, and ultimately overall improved population performance (Coates et al. 2017b, pp. 31–33; Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63; Severson et al. 2017, p. 53; Prochazka et al. 2017, p. 46; Olsen 2019, pp. 21–22). (9) Comment: Several commenters suggest that fire is the most significant threat to the Bi-State DPS and that postfire restoration is difficult. Alternatively, several other commenters PO 00000 Frm 00037 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18089 suggest that fire is a natural process and does not constitute a complete loss of habitat for the Bi-State DPS because sage-grouse will use burned areas. Our Response: In the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 79–86) and in Wildfires and Altered Fire Regime, we address potential habitat changes that may be related to wildland fires and post-fire restoration activities. We agree that fire is a natural process on the landscape within the Bi-State area; however, we also note that we found that the ‘‘too-little’’ and ‘‘too-much’’ fire scenarios present challenges for the BiState DPS. In other words, in some locations, the lack of fire has facilitated the expansion of woodlands, especially into montane shrub communities. In other locations, recent fires have been followed by invasive-weed establishment facilitating a reoccurring fire cycle that restricts sagebrush restoration. These scenarios present challenges for the species. Still, although fires have occurred across the range of the Bi-State DPS historically and recently, we acknowledge that a sufficient amount of suitable habitat remains for sage-grouse use. Some of this remaining suitable habitat is threatened by additional fire because of adjacent invasive annual plants and woodland establishment, which can influence the frequency and intensity of future fire events. Further, impacts to remaining sagebrush habitat may be exacerbated due to interactions with other threats that are acting in the BiState area (see Summary of Threats). As a result of these impacts, conservation efforts are under way currently and into the future to reduce impacts associated with nonnative, invasive plants (e.g., multiple BLM and USFS invasive weed management treatments in multiple PMUs), and woodland succession (e.g., BLM, USFS, and NRCS treatments of phase I and II pinyon-juniper encroachment in all six PMUs) (Bi-State TAC 2014, in litt.). Additionally, while short-term (and potentially long-term) impacts from fire events to sage-grouse are known to occur, including but not limited to habitat loss and population declines (Beck et al. 2012, p. 452; Knick et al. 2011, p. 233; Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 469), we agree that some information suggests sage-grouse use of burned habitat. Small fires may maintain a suitable habitat mosaic by reducing shrub encroachment and encouraging understory growth. However, without available nearby sagebrush cover, the broad utility of these sites is questionable (Woodward 2006, p. 65). For example, sage-grouse using burned areas were rarely found more than 60 m E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18090 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules (200 ft) from the edge of the burn and may preferentially use the burned and unburned edge habitat (Slater 2003, p. 63). We recognize that fire is natural and the primary disturbance mechanism in the sagebrush ecosystem. We also recognize that sage-grouse will selectively utilize portions of burned habitat. However, the challenge that wildfire presents to the sustainability of the system remains, especially given the relatively limited and fragmented suitable sagebrush habitat present in the Bi-State area. Still, land managers within the range of the Bi-State DPS are currently implementing and will continue to implement conservation efforts into the future that are expected to reduce the potential impacts of wildfire as it relates to nonnative, invasive plants and pinyon-juniper encroachment (Bi-State TAC 2018, pp. 22–23). (10) Comment: Several commenters suggested that climate change poses a significant impact to the Bi-State DPS and its habitat, including one commenter that stated we underestimated the impact that climate change and drought may have on the DPS. Our Response: In the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 86–94) and in Climate, we address potential impacts associated with climate change. We found that projected climate change and its associated consequences have the potential to affect sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat in the Bi-State area. The impacts of climate change interact with other stressors such as disease, invasive species, prey availability, moisture, vegetation community dynamics, disturbance regimes, and other habitat degradations and loss that are already affecting the species (Strzepek et al. 2010, p. 5; Walker and Naugle 2011, entire; Finch 2012, pp. 60, 80; IPCC 2014, p. 60; Ault et al. 2014, p. 7545; Garfin et al. 2014, p. 463; He et al. 2018, pp. 16–17; Reich et al. 2018, p. 21). In the 2015 withdrawal of our proposed rule, we concluded that the overall impact of climate change to the Bi-State DPS at this time is considered moderate. Neither the commenters nor others provided new information related to climate change that would result in a change in our analysis. Our conclusion of moderate impact from climate change may ultimately prove to be conservative, but we believe this is the most supportable conclusion given the inherent uncertainties associated with climate modeling, especially prediction concerning precipitation. Additionally, conservation efforts associated with the 2012 BSAP (such as VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 grazing exclosures, changes to grazing management plans, prescribed fires, invasive plant control, mechanical treatments, and conservation of meadow habitats) are increasing resiliency such that the magnitude of climate changes impacts will be reduced into the foreseeable future. If in the future substantial new information becomes available as to the specific impacts that may be incurred by the Bi-State DPS associated with climate change, we will revisit this assessment. (11) Comment: Several commenters stated that we should have proposed listing the Bi-State DPS of greater sagegrouse as an endangered species as opposed to a threatened species. Our Response: Section 3 of the Act defines an endangered species as any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and a threatened species as any species that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. With regard to the Bi-State DPS, we have identified a series of threats across the range of the Bi-State DPS that are resulting in the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range, and other natural or manmade threats affecting the DPS’s continued existence. We have determined that, assuming current conditions continue into the future, these impacts are such that the DPS is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future (i.e., the definition of a threatened species). Many of these impacts are cumulatively acting upon the Bi-State DPS and increase the risk of extinction, but not to such a degree that the DPS is in danger of extinction today (see Determination of Status for the Bi-State DPS, below). However, after consideration of partially completed projects and future conservation efforts that we have found to be highly certain to be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, above), we conclude the Bi-State DPS is not in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and is not likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future (threatened), throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Therefore, the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse does not meet the definition of a threatened or endangered species, and we are withdrawing the proposed listing, 4(d), and critical habitat rules for the Bi-State DPS. PO 00000 Frm 00038 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 (12) Comment: Some commenters were concerned about the effects of listing on mining and associated activities conducted under the General Mining Law of 1872. One commenter suggested that listing did not take into consideration Federal mining law and recognition of valid existing rights. Another commenter was concerned that there would be no assurances that development of a mining claim will result in the ability to mine it. Our Response: In the proposed listing rule, we identified mining and associated activities to be a threat to the Bi-State DPS; however, today we consider it a less significant impact and one that does not occur across the entire Bi-State area. On federally managed land outside of designated wilderness and wilderness study area (approximately 92 percent of all federal lands (1,629,669 ha or 4,027,000 ac)), new mining may occur pursuant to the Mining Law of 1872 (30 U.S.C. 21 et seq.), which was enacted to promote exploration and development of domestic mineral resources, as well as the settlement of the western United States. It permits U.S. citizens and businesses to prospect hardrock (locatable) minerals and, if a valuable deposit is found, file a claim giving them the right to use the land for mining activities and sell the minerals extracted. Gold and other minerals are frequently mined as locatable minerals subject to the Mining Law of 1872. Federal agencies with jurisdiction over land where mining occurs will review mining and other actions that they fund, authorize, or carry out to determine if listed species may be affected in accordance with section 7 of the Act. Because we are withdrawing our proposed rule to list the Bi-State DPS and it will not be placed on the list of federally endangered or threatened species, consultations under section 7 of the Act will not be required specific to the Bi-State DPS. As discussed above, potential exists for mining operations to expand both currently and into the future, but the scope of impacts from existing mining expansion is not considered extensive. We concluded that, by itself, mining is not currently considered a significant impact to the Bi-State population, though mining exploration continues, and mining activity could occur at any time in the future. (13) Comment: Several commenters stated that they believe mining is not a threat to the Bi-State DPS. Alternatively, another commenter suggested impacts from mining are significant. Our Response: In the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 60–63) and in Mining, E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules we address potential impacts associated with mining activities. Sage-grouse could be impacted directly or indirectly from an increase in human presence, land use practices, ground shock, noise, dust, reduced air quality, degradation of water quality and quantity, and changes in vegetation and topography (Moore and Mills 1977, entire; Brown and Clayton 2004, p. 2). However, these effects are theoretical, given that information relating sage-grouse response to mineral developments is not extensive. Neither the commenters nor others provided new information related to this threat. While we maintain that it is reasonable to assume a negative impact from mining on sage-grouse, based on the current extent and location of mineral developments in the Bi-State area, we conclude that mining is not considered a significant impact at this time. Mining is a potential future concern based on its potential to impact important lek complexes and population connectivity. It may also create effects that combine with other threats currently acting on the Bi-State DPS resulting in a higher degree of negative impact in the future, though not to the extent that the species will become endangered in the forseeable future. See the Mining section of the 2019 Species Report for a complete discussion of the potential effects of mining activities on the Bi-State DPS and its habitat. (14) Comment: Numerous commenters suggested that our grazing and rangeland management assessment in the proposed listing rule is not accurate and requires additional clarification. Specifically, they suggested that: (1) Current livestock grazing is compatible with sage-grouse conservation in the Bi-State area, (2) a more clearly defined delineation is needed between past and present grazing impacts, and (3) additional delineation is needed among grazing animals (such as cattle, horses, sheep). Alternatively, several other commenters suggested that grazing and rangeland management are a significant threat to the Bi-State DPS’s conservation and that this threat is not adequately controlled by existing management programs. Our Response: In the 2019 Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 65–73) and in Grazing and Rangeland Management, we found that the majority of sagegrouse habitat in the Bi-State area is not significantly impacted by livestock grazing. Specifically, RHAs or their equivalents (the standard used by Federal agencies to assess habitat condition) have been completed on allotments covering approximately 81 percent of suitable sage-grouse habitat VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 in the Bi-State area. Of the allotments with RHAs completed, 81 percent (n=97) are meeting upland vegetation standards, suggesting that approximately 352,249 ha (870,427 ac) out of approximately 563,941 ha (1,393,529 ac) of suitable sage-grouse habitat are known to be in a condition compatible with sagebrush community maintenance. Furthermore, of the allotments with RHAs completed, 45 percent are meeting riparian standards and 27 percent are not, with the remainder being unknown or the allotment not containing riparian habitat. Of those not meeting riparian standards (approximately 15 percent), livestock were a significant or partially significant cause for the allotment failing to meet identified standards while the remainders were attributed to other causes such as past mining activity or road presence. In each instance of an allotment not meeting standards due to livestock, remedial actions have been taken by the representative land managing agency (such as changes in intensity, duration, or season of use by livestock). Furthermore, while we have information on the class of livestock (i.e., sheep, cattle) associated with any given allotment, we did not analyze these allotments independently based on this difference. While it is true that types of livestock will use vegetation communities differently, meaning some animals consume more shrubs and others consume more grasses, RHAs or their equivalents are a measure of the condition of the allotment against a desired condition, which includes among other things fish and wildlife habitat condition. Given that RHAs in the Bi-State area consider suitable sagegrouse habitat condition as part of their evaluation, including shrub and herbaceous cover, we consider RHAs as a unit of measure sufficiently finescaled to be informative. Ultimately, based on data contained within RHAs, we concluded that modern livestock grazing is not a significant impact on sage-grouse habitat. We also note that historical impacts from livestock grazing and impacts caused by feral horses are apparent, but data to assess these impacts are limited. None of the commenters provided additional data to assist with this assessment. In total, we believe that historical impacts (past grazing and other land uses) and impacts from feral horse use is apparent in local areas, but we consider current management to be sufficient to address these issues. (15) Comment: Several commenters provided information pertaining to PO 00000 Frm 00039 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18091 population performance and size across the DPS as a whole as well as for individual Population Management Units. Our Response: While we appreciate these updates, all of these comments and the data contained within them have been considered in the associated 2019 Species Report as well as within this document. Furthermore, we note that the most recent final results stemming from the IPM (Coates et al. 2020, entire) are similarly incorporated into our 2019 Species Report and this document. The data provided by commenters have either been updated by incorporating more recent data into the analysis or by making slight alterations to the modelling approach. Many preliminary research results are presented to the Local Area Working Group during regularly occurring meetings. These results, however, are often prone to change as the research is finalized. Therefore, the numbers presented in the 2019 Species Report and incorporated into this document represent the most up-to-date finalized findings and represent the best scientific and commercial data available. (16) Comment: At least one commenter questioned the efficacy and rationale for the currently ongoing translocation effort in the Parker Meadows subpopulation. The commenter specifically expressed concern over the potential impact this action may have on the source population and further questioned whether the habitat in the Parker Meadows area is sufficiently suitable for the reintroduction. Our Response: The 2012 Action Plan identified augmentation of the Parker Meadows subpopulation via translocation as a conservation action. This effort was identified as a need based on the small size of the subpopulation, genetic information highlighting relatively low genetic diversity in the subpopulation, and recent monitoring results identifying low hatchability of clutches (females were laying eggs but these eggs were not hatching, suggesting eggs were either going unfertilized or genetic anomalies were inhibiting some aspect of egg development). To restore genetic and demographic health to the subpopulation, birds from outside the subpopulation were captured and moved to the Parker Meadows site. The overarching intent of this action was to conserve and enhance connectivity between PMUs, specifically between the South Mono and Bodie PMUs. Prior to initiating this effort, members of the Bi-State TAC conducted a site visit to assess habitat condition. Habitat E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18092 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules was deemed to be of suitable condition but for the occurrence of a limited number of conifer trees that had become established in proximity to the lek and brood-rearing meadow. These trees were removed prior to the augmentation. In addition, the Bi-State TAC evaluated the potential impact the source population may incur, due to the removal of birds, via the IPM. Essentially, the study evaluated how altering adult female and brood survival for the source population impacted population performance. The source population was the Bodie PMU, and the results suggested the removal of birds from this location would not affect overall population growth within this PMU. We evaluated the potential impact from this action in the 2019 Species Report, within the Scientific and Educational Uses section (Service 2020, pp. 101–104). Ultimately, measuring the success of this translocation effort will require additional time. Preliminary results suggest that translocated birds are remaining in the Parker Meadows area at an increasing rate, probability of nest initiation and nest success have increased, brood success is on par with the remainder of the DPS, and lek counts have increased over the past 2 years. (17) Comment: Several commenters expressed concern over the estimated effective population size of the DPS as a whole as well as for specific populations. Our Response: As discussed in Small Population Size and Population Isolation, studies suggest effective population size should exceed 50 to 100 individuals to avoid short-term extinction risk caused by inbreeding depression, and mathematical models suggest that effective population size should exceed 500 individuals to retain evolutionary potential and avoid longterm extinction risk (Franklin 1980, entire; Soule 1980, entire). However, some estimates of an effective population size necessary to retain evolutionary potential are as high as 5,000 individuals, although these estimates are thought to be highly species specific and influenced by many extrinsic factors (Lande 1995, p. 789). The effective population size of the BiState DPS in 2018 was between 330 and 661 birds (Table 2; Service 2020, pp. 119–121). We agree that the size of the populations and the relative degree of isolation among populations within the Bi-State area is a concern to species conservation as it can exacerbate the effects of genetic issues, stochastic events, and other threats to the DPS. However, as discussed above, the VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 current genetic diversity present in the Bi-State area population is comparable to other populations, suggesting that the differences are not due to a genetic bottleneck or founder event (OylerMcCance and Quinn 2011, p. 91; OylerMcCance et al. 2014, p. 8). The available genetic information demonstrates that the Bi-State sage-grouse are both discrete from other greater sage-grouse populations and are genetically unique. Further, a significant impetus of the 2012 Action Plan was to facilitate connectivity among populations across the DPS. While we remain concerned regarding isolation of these populations, we believe that effective implementation of the 2012 Action Plan will help alleviate concerns over loss of genetic diversity or the accumulation of deleterious alleles. (18) Comment: Several commenters identified new potential threats to the DPS, which were not apparent at the time of our proposed listing in 2013. Specifically, these include a potential change to how LADWP manages their lands in Long Valley, the potential for additional development within the designated West-wide Energy Corridor, a potential new hydro-pump storage energy development in the White Mountains PMU, and the development of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement pertaining to fuel break development in the Great Basin (PEIS). Our Response: We appreciate these updates on potential threats and note that each of these identified new threats has been considered in the associated 2019 Species Report as well as in this document. The Record of Decision on the Westwide Energy Corridor was signed in 2009 by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture. This action was challenged in court the same year, and a settlement was reached in 2012. One aspect of the settlement was a reevaluation of the corridors identified in 2009, and the public scoping for this assessment was reopened in the past year. Thus, we have been aware of this potential activity for nearly a decade but recognize the renewed interest in its potential impact to the Bi-State DPS. A section of these designated corridors passes through the Mount Grant PMU. This corridor section currently has a high-voltage transmission line in place, but additional development may take place assuming the completion of this NEPA action. While we recognize that additional development may occur and may cause impacts to this population, we do not have any knowledge of, nor did the commenters provide, additional PO 00000 Frm 00040 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 data informing the likelihood of future development. The reevaluation of these corridors is currently ongoing per the 2012 settlement. This reevaluation may, in fact, result in revisions to the 2009 corridor proposals. We do not have sufficient certainty at this time of what the potential impacts of this action may have on the Mount Grant PMU. The LADWP is currently evaluating alterations to the amount of water it has traditionally provided for agricultural use in Long Valley. This water allocation has most commonly been used to irrigate portions of Long Valley to benefit forage production for local ranching operations. An ancillary benefit of this practice has been the enhancement of sage-grouse broodrearing habitat. Thus, changes to this practice could influence the sage-grouse population in Long Valley by negatively impacting chick survival. To address these type of concerns, in June of 2019, LADWP sent a letter to the Service reaffirming their commitment to their 2013 Conservation Strategy (implemented by a memorandum of understanding with FWS), through which LADWP supports sage-grouse conservation by, in part, utilizing its water resources to maintain and improve important habitat for sagegrouse on their lands; and to continue using a collaborative, science-based, and adaptive management approach to achieve the best habitat results. Therefore, we recognize the potential impacts that alteration to water supplies in Long Valley may have on the local sage-grouse population, but we consider this to be a manageable stressor, in light of LADWP’s continuing commitment toward Bi-State DPS conservation. In 2019, an application was submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build and maintain a new hydro-pump storage facility within the White Mountains PMU, representing a potentially new threat to the DPS. However, this application was subsequently withdrawn. Therefore, the Service does not consider this formerly proposed facility to be an active threat to the Bi-State DPS. In 2017, the BLM published a notice of intent to prepare the development of a Great-Basin-Wide Fuel Break PEIS. The purpose of this document is to expedite the development, enhancement, maintenance, and utilization of fuel breaks to prevent or minimize the likelihood of large-scale wildfire events, which are becoming more prevalent in the Great Basin. This would be accomplished by establishing strategic fuel breaks wherein fire fighters could stage and anchor suppression activities to increase E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules quicker suppression response times. We recognize that Bi-State DPS habitat is included within the scope of the PEIS. Further, we recognize that fragmentation of habitats through the establishment of fuel breaks may negatively impact some wildlife species including greater sage-grouse (Shinneman et al. 2019, pp. 4–7). There are trade-offs between the effects of habitat lost to fire and habitat lost or degraded by the establishment of a fuel break. Because the plan has not yet been prepared, it is difficult to fully assess its impacts on sagebrush habitat. Still, we anticipated that, after the PEIS is complete, site-specific NEPA analysis (or possibly categorical exclusion or determinations of NEPA adequacy analyses) will still be developed, as the PEIS does not detail the specific locations where these fuel breaks will be established. Given current direction provided by Land Use Plans in the BiState area, identified ‘‘Best Management Practices’’ outlined in the PEIS, and the existing collaboration among the EOC, TAC, and LAWG, we contend that future discussions pertaining to the potential establishment of fuel breaks in the Bi-State area will be robust and afford substantial deference to sagegrouse as well as the integrity of the entire sagebrush ecosystem. Therefore, we do not consider the PEIS to negatively impact the species, and thus do not consider it in our threats analysis. (19) Comment: One commenter questioned the feasibility of ongoing financial commitments provided by the Bi-State EOC toward the implementation of the 2012 BSAP. Our Response: The BSAP identifies threats to the conservation of sagegrouse in the Bi-State area and delineates specific conservation actions to alleviate those threats. In 2014, the Bi-State EOC pledged to fund these actions at a value in excess of 45 million dollars over a 10-year timeframe. We recognize that funding commitments provided by Federal agencies over a 10year time horizon may appear speculative, given these agencies typically work with annual funding cycles driven by the U.S. Congress appropriations process; however, agency managers still retain substantial discretion to forecast and plan how to utilize appropriations in a longer term strategy. From 2014 through 2018, approximately 26 million dollars have already been allocated, representing approximately 57 percent of pledged funds (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 35). Furthermore, agency partners in the EOC recently updated their respective letters of commitment to continue VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 funding for the next 5 years. Given the robust collaborative effort in the Bi-State area in combination with the realized funding track record over the past 5 years and recent reiterations of commitments for future funding, we consider the likelihood of future commitments to be high. (20) Comment: One commenter suggested we should assess human population density on a county-bycounty basis to determine how it compares to the four people per 1 km2 threshold established by Aldridge et al. (2008). Our Response: In 2008, Aldridge et al. (2008) published a peer-reviewed scientific article, which evaluated a number of predictive variables to compare locations of extant versus extirpated sage-grouse populations. We note that this correlative study does not imply causation but is a frequently used approach in wildlife studies and that this type of approach can be highly informative. As discussed in Urbanization and Habitat Conversion, in modeling several measures of human population on greater sage-grouse persistence, including current population density, historical population density, and human population growth, the best predictor of sage-grouse extirpation was human population density in 1950 (Aldridge et al. 2008, p. 985). This finding suggests that human development has had long-term impacts on habitat suitability and sage-grouse persistence. Extirpation was more likely in areas having a moderate human population density of at least four people per 1 km2 (10 people per 1 mi2). Furthermore, increase in human populations from this moderate level did not infer a greater likelihood of extirpation, likely because much of the additional growth occurred in areas no longer suitable for sage-grouse (Aldridge et al. 2008, pp. 991–992). In the 2019 Species Report, we examined the potential likelihood of population changes that may influence urbanization and habitat conversion in the future, by reviewing the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data (U.S. Census Bureau 2018). We found five of eight counties in the Bi-State area have documented declines in the estimated number of people present between 2010 and 2017: Alpine, Mono, and Inyo Counties in California, and Mineral and Carson City Counties in Nevada. In addition, all of these counties except Carson City, Nevada, support substantially fewer than four people per 1 km2 (10 people per 1 mi2). The remaining three counties in the Bi-State area have seen human population PO 00000 Frm 00041 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18093 increases over the past decade, ranging from 2.8 percent for Douglas County, Nevada, and 4.1 percent for Lyon County, Nevada, to 8.4 percent for Esmerelda County, Nevada (U.S. Census Bureau 2018). While Esmerelda County still contains substantially fewer than four people per km2 (four people per 0.4 mi2), both Lyon and Douglas Counties, Nevada, have from two to six times that population density. Although we do not have specific information on possible future developments from each of these counties with documented human population increases, we are aware that recent development levels are reduced as compared to the past. Obviously, this metric can be informative but potentially misleading or unsatisfying. Frequently, counties have high- and low-density areas such as cities and towns or more rural developments. Evaluating the number of people per area does not capture the true distribution of people across the landscape. So, while it is reasonable to use the Aldridge et al. (2008) study to explore similarities or differences among locations, two counties with the same density of people can have differing levels of effects to sage-grouse based on the pattern of development. (21) Comment: One commenter suggested we should invite and interview Native American tribal partners to share their knowledge of historical and pre-historical occurrence of sage-grouse in the Bi-State area. Our Response: We agree that our Native American partners have a rich oral and written history in the Bi-State area, and we have been working with them since 2014 to incorporate their knowledge into the Bi-State collaboration. The first milestone of this endeavor occurred in 2016 in the form of a Traditional Ecological Knowledge Summit intended to engage and learn from the local and more broadly dispersed Native American Tribes in the Great Basin on sage-grouse history and conservation and the cultural significance of pinyon pine trees. This well-attended event presented an opportunity for the dissemination of traditional knowledge and subsequently led to the establishment of the Bi-State Traditional Natural Resources Committee. The intent of this committee is simple, to expand the breadth of the Bi-State collaboration such that decisions and actions are informed by and take into consideration Native American concerns and insights. We are pleased to further expand the Bi-State collaborative through the participation of Native American tribes and agree that inclusion of traditional knowledge is an E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18094 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules imperative. With respect to this listing decision process specifically, we extended an invitation to Tribal partners to review and comment on our 2019 Species Report prior to its completion, but we did not receive any responses. (22) Comment: One commenter stated that we must consider the best available science on impacts to sage-grouse wintering habitats and map Bi-State sage-grouse wintering habitat to assess threats to it. Further, they stated this is of critical importance because wintering habitats may be found outside habitats designated on the basis of breeding and nesting habitats. Our Response: We concur that an understanding of wintering habitats is important to conservation and management of the Bi-State DPS. We further agree that mapping of wintering habitat would be useful to assess threats. However, we are required to make our determination based on the best scientific and commercial data available at the time of our rulemaking, and information on wintering habitats as well as maps of wintering habitat are not currently available. In preparing this document, we considered the best scientific and commercial data available regarding the Bi-State DPS to evaluate their potential status under the Act. We solicited peer review of our evaluation of the available data, and our peer reviewers supported our analysis. Science is a cumulative process, and the body of knowledge is ever-growing. In light of this, the Service will always take new research into consideration into future analyses of the Bi-State DPS, but we are required to publish a final decision on the Bi-State DPS in the Federal Register by April 1, 2020. If plausible new research supports amendment or revision of this withdrawal document in the future, the Service will consider the new information consistent with the Act and our established work priorities at that time. (23) Comment: One commenter suggested we should present up-to-date acreage for private lands covered by conservation easements and provide descriptions of projects funded by the NRCS. Our Response: We estimate that, since 2003, approximately 10,415 ha (25,737 ac) of private land, which may provide suitable habitat for sage-grouse in the Bi-State DPS, are currently enrolled in various easement programs. The easements are targeted primarily at development and water rights and vary in length from 30 years to in perpetuity. The majority of these easement lands are located in the Bodie PMU, with the remainder of easements occurring in the VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 Desert Creek-Fales, South Mono, Pine Nut, and White Mountains PMUs. In addition, we estimate that approximately 9,737 ha (24,060 ac) of previously private land within the BiState DPS has been acquired by State and Federal agencies over this same timeframe. In total, approximately 20,153 ha (49,800 ac) of land, either through conservation easements or acquisitions, has been substantially protected from urbanization challenges. These acres represent approximately 31 percent of total private lands containing mapped sage-grouse habitat across the Bi-State. Furthermore, 12,243 ha (30,254 ac) of the total 20,153 ha (49,800 ac) of easements and acquisitions completed since 2003 have been accomplished since the adoption of the BSAP in 2012. Further, we note that approximately 7,284 ha (18,000 ac) of private lands have funding obligated for conservation easements, but these transactions are still in progress. An effort to acquire approximately 5,870 ha (14,500 ac) of lands in the Pine Nut PMU by the Carson City BLM has been approved and is anticipated to finalize in spring of 2020. The NRCS, via the Farm Bill, can fund restoration actions on private and public lands across the Bi-State DPS. The suite of actions they can fund is broad, but based on a Conference Report with the Service in 2010, there are three main types of conservation practice standards employed: management, vegetative, and structural. Examples of practices that fall under these three main categories include (but are not limited to): (1) Prescribed grazing assistance, upland and meadow management, access management; (2) forest slash management, cover crop, weed control, seeding; and (3) infrastructure, fish and wildlife structure, obstruction removal. While a variety of these practices have been employed in the Bi-State area, in general the preponderance of NRCS’s efforts in the Bi-State area have focused on securing conservation easements and conifer removal. Since 2010, NRCS has placed into easement approximately 8,741 ha (21,600 ac) of private lands. In addition, over this same timeframe, NRCS has funded the removal of approximately 4,649 ha (11,488 ac) of conifer trees for the benefit of the species across multiple PMUs. (24) Comment: Several commenters expressed concern over population performance in some subpopulations and how this may result in range contraction of the DPS. Further one commenter submitted that we evaluate lek count data collected by the States and incorporate it into population trend analysis. PO 00000 Frm 00042 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 Our Response: We agree that some of the smaller peripheral populations experiencing population declines may result in range contractions in the BiState DPS as a whole. A recent analysis considering data from the past 24 years on four populations found that some populations in the Bi-State DPS are contracting their habitat use, with contractions most apparent in the Fales, Long Valley, and Sagehen populations (Coates et al. 2020, p. 44). Over this same time, distributional area in the Bodie Hills has increased (Coates et al. 2020, p. 44). Across the entire Bi-State area, these results suggest a median net loss of 858 ha (2,120 ac) annually. Additionally, recent changes in distribution (past 11 years) suggests a pattern similar to those described for the long-term spatial trend analysis. This short-term analysis also considered additional populations (Coates et al. 2020, p. 51). These results suggest contractions of total area for the Desert Creek, Long Valley, Mount Grant, Pine Nut, Sagehen, and White Mountains populations and expansion in the Bodie Hills, Fales, and Parker Meadows populations. Similar to the long-term analysis, the net effect over the 11 years was a loss of total area occupied over time, which corresponds to a median loss of 2,312 ha (5,713 ac) annually since 2008 (Coates et al. 2020, p. 51). These apparent declines in certain populations and habitat use over the shorter time period was likely influenced by the fact that the DPS is in the downward portion of their cyclic population growth. We also note that a significant drought affected this DPS from 2011 to 2015, and based on our understanding of the drivers behind sage-grouse population cycles, this drought condition has very likely affected recent population performance. We will continue to monitor the condition of these smaller, peripheral populations while working with our partners to implement beneficial actions from the BSAP. As part of our assessments of the BiState DPS, we request and review lek count data from NDOW and CDFW. We recognize that this data can be informative but further acknowledge that these data have limitations. For example, sage-grouse are known to forgo breeding activity during years of poor conditions, such as drought. Therefore, an individual animal may still be present in the population but does not attend the lek and therefore is not counted. While the data in this instance may suggest decline, it is misleading. There is support, however, that over a longer timeframe (8–10 years), lek counts act as a reasonable index to E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules population performance. Modeling these data helps alleviate concerns over the inherent errors associated with lek counts. Further, integrating the observations with additional data such as that collected via telemetry studies makes for a much more robust approach to understanding population dynamics. Ultimately, we do not dismiss lek count information, but we contend that incorporating this information into a more holistic approach—such as the Integrated Population Model for the BiState DPS—is a more informative approach to understanding population abundance and trend. (25) Comment: One commenter suggested we review Smith and Beck (2017) and contends that sagebrush treatments do not benefit greater sagegrouse and further that pinyon-juniper treatments also disturb sagebrush habitat, implying pinyon-juniper treatments do not benefit sage-grouse. Our Response: We appreciate this information. We agree with the findings in this report and submit that these results have been supported by others investigating habitat selection by greater sage-grouse. While the removal of sagebrush to benefit herbaceous understory development was a relatively frequent activity in the 1940s to the 1970s (Knick et al. 2011, p. 220), this form of action has been greatly curtailed in the past two decades. There may still be benefits to this type of action, and it is still conducted sporadically, but recent treatment methodology has been to open small gaps in the shrub canopy to alter the mosaic of the landscape in hopes of improving brood-rearing habitat. The validity of this treatment approach remains uncertain, and our understanding of the appropriate sagegrouse habitat mosaic remains untested. The intent of pinyon-juniper removal projects is to facilitate sagebrush community conservation and improve the suitability of a location for sagegrouse. Sage-grouse avoid tree communities, and their fitness is impacted by exposure to it. Furthermore, left unmanaged, trees will ultimately out-compete understory species (shrubs and herbaceous), resulting in a homogenous forested vegetation condition. Restoration of the shrub community at this point becomes extremely challenging. Targeted pinyonjuniper treatments in the Bi-State area are focused on, what is termed, phase I and phase II encroachment conditions. Phase I refers generally to conditions where trees are small (shrub high) with less than 10 percent canopy cover and the shrub community remains intact. Phase II occurs as the tree canopy cover VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 increase (10–30 percent), trees increase in size, and the shrub community begins to decrease in dominance. Treatments of phase I communities is typically accomplished with garden pruners and pedestrian locomotion. This type of treatment would have negligible impact on the shrub community due to disturbance. As trees begin to increase in size, chainsaws and machinery are employed. In these instances, disturbance to the shrub community may occur but specific prescriptions and best management practices are followed to alleviate this exact concern. Shrub community disturbance in these instances do not equate to the treatments described by Smith and Beck (2017), where shrubs were specifically targeted for removal across large acreages. Finally, the potential short-term and restricted impact to the shrub community caused by tree removal treatments are outweighed by the long-term benefit gained through increasing and improving sage-grouse habitats. (26) Comment: Several commenters expressed concern that economic development will be negatively impacted by listing and suggested that it is necessary for the Service to conduct an analysis of the impacts that listing a species may have on local economies prior to issuance of a final rule. Alternatively, one commenter submitted that the local economy will be positively benefited. Our Response: Under the Act, the Secretary shall make determinations whether any species is an endangered species or a threatened species solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available. Thus, the Service is not allowed to consider the economic impact of listing when making determinations whether a species is an endangered species or a threatened species. Determination of Status for the Bi-State DPS Section 4 of the Act (16 U.S.C. 1533) and its implementing regulations (50 CFR part 424) set forth the procedures for determining whether a species meets the definition of ‘‘endangered species’’ or ‘‘threatened species.’’ The Act defines an ‘‘endangered species’’ as a species that is ‘‘in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,’’ and a ‘‘threatened species’’ as a species that is ‘‘likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.’’ The Act requires that we determine whether a species meets the definition of ‘‘endangered species’’ or ‘‘threatened PO 00000 Frm 00043 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18095 species’’ because of any of the following factors: (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) Disease or predation; (D) The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence. For a more detailed discussion on the factors considered when determining whether a species meets the definition of ‘‘endangered species’’ or ‘‘threatened species’’ and our analysis on how we determine the foreseeable future in making these decisions, see Regulatory Framework, above. Status Throughout All of Its Range In this document, we reviewed the biological condition of the Bi-State DPS and its resources, and the influence of those resources on the species’ overall viability and the risks to that viability. We presented summary evaluations of 11 threats analyzed in the Species Report: urbanization and habitat conversion (Factor A); infrastructure (Factor A); mining (Factor A); grazing and rangeland management (Factor A); nonnative invasive plants and native woodland succession (Factor A); wildfires and altered fire regime (Factor A); climate change, including drought (Factor A); recreation (Factor E); disease (Factor C); predation (Factor C); and small population size and population isolation (Factor E). We also evaluate the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms (Factor D) in ameliorating the magnitude and effect of threats. Please see the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 39–136) for a more detailed discussion of each threat. In the Species Report, we also presented our evaluation of four additional threats: Renewable energy (Factor A), commercial and recreational hunting (Factor B); scientific and educational uses (Factor B); and contaminants (including pesticides) (Factor E). In the species report, we concluded that, although these threats are currently having some impact on individual sage-grouse and their habitat, their overall effect now and into the future is expected to be minimal. We did not present summary analyses of those threats in this document but, did consider them in Summary of Threats and consider them now as a part of our determination of status. When we issued a proposed rule to list the Bi-State DPS in 2013 (78 FR 64358, October 28, 2013), we found that the species was likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18096 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules throughout all of its range due to threats associated with native woodland succession, the wildfire-invasive plant cycle, effects associated with small population size, and increased fragmentation of sagebrush habitat in the Bi-State area. Many of these threats remain on the landscape today. Pinyonjuniper encroachment (Factor A) continues to alter sagebrush habitat in the Bi-State area. Effects due to wildfire (Factor A) and nonnative invasive plants (cheatgrass) (Factor A) also continue to alter and degrade sagebrush habitat. The effects of drought (Factor A) are exacerbating impacts of wildfire, invasive plants, and altered wildfire regimes across the Bi-State area. In the future, climate change (Factor A) will result in warmer temperatures, altered precipitation regimes, and more frequent droughts. These changes will likely result in a greater intensity of these other threats into the foreseeable future. Drought in particular appears to have a strong influence on population dynamics and population cycling in the Bi-State DPS (Coates et al. 2020, pp. 27, 29). Areas across the Bi-State DPS are experiencing combined impacts of threats from wildfire, invasive species, urbanization (Factor A), infrastructure effects (Factor A), and recreation (Factor E); these effects may be exacerbated by population isolation and discontinuous population structure (Factor E). Regulatory mechanisms (Factor D), particularly RMPs and land management plans, are helping to ameliorate some threats across the BiState DPS. These plans provide specific direction for management of the DPS and its habitat, including decreasing habitat disturbance (direct effects) and noise and other impacts (indirect effects), through provisions addressing recreation, grazing, weeds, wild horses, minerals, and fire management. Impacts associated with Factor B (commercial and recreational hunting, and scientific and educational uses) are having very minor effects the Bi-State DPS now, and they are not expected to substantially increase within the foreseeable future. Predation (Factor C), particularly by ravens, is impacting the DPS, but not at a magnitude where resiliency is significantly affected. However, as habitat degradation and fragmentation continue to increase, the magnitude of the threat of predation could increase into the future. The key distinction between now and the 2013 proposed listing rule is the implementation of the 2012 BSAP, which began implementation in 2014 with the publication of the 2014 EOC report and the letters of commitment VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 from partner agencies. Ongoing and future conservation efforts associated with the BSAP are likely to increase habitat quantity, quality, and connectivity, and enhance resiliency, redundancy, and representation. Efforts associated with the BSAP will: (1) Protect and restore critical broodrearing habitat (reduces impacts from development/habitat conversion, grazing and rangeland management, and effects resulting from climate change). (2) Restore habitat impacted by nonnative, invasive species (e.g., cheatgrass) and pinyon-juniper encroachment (reduces impacts from nonnative, invasive and certain native plants, wildfire, predation, and effects resulting from climate change). (3) Improve our understanding of sage-grouse populations, structure, etc., to: (a) Prioritize management actions related to synergistic impacts on already fragmented habitat (reduced impacts such as infrastructure, urbanization, and recreation), such that management efforts occur in locations that benefit the DPS the most; and (b) develop and implement sage-grouse translocations from stable subpopulations to other small subpopulations that may be experiencing a high risk of extirpation (reduces impacts from small population size and population structure). These measures will likely increase the number of sage-grouse and resiliency of populations throughout the Bi-State DPS. These efforts to stop and reverse habitat loss and fragmentation will make small populations of Bi-State sage-grouse less susceptible to the effects of habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation. They will expand the amount of protected habitat in critical brood-rearing habitat areas as well as restore currently unsuitable habitat in areas utilized for dispersal and colonization. As a whole, conservation efforts associated with the BSAP are expected to increase species redundancy and the Bi-State’s ability to withstand future random, stochastic events. Additionally, in recent years, we have gained increased certainty of the effectiveness of pinyon-juniper removal on restoring sagebrush habitat and the use of restored areas by sage-grouse (Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63; Severson et al. 2017, p. 53; Olsen 2019, pp. 21–22). Further, sage-grouse using restored areas had significantly increased survival and brood success in treated versus control areas, with population growth was 11.2 percent higher in treatment than in control sites within 5 years of conifer removal (Olsen 2019, pp. 21–22). Recent trend analyses have given us a stronger understanding of the PO 00000 Frm 00044 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 population dynamics of the Bi-State DPS. The Bi-State DPS appears to be undergoing population cycling, which is typical of sage-grouse populations rangewide. The most recent study concluded that the DPS, as a whole, experiences stable trends over all three time periods studied, and that in the period 1995–2018, the DPS increased by 2 percent a year (95 percent CRI = 0.74– 1.42) (Coates et al. 2020, p. 25). Although the Bi-State DPS experienced periods of decline, these declines were offset by later periods of population growth (Coates et al. 2020, p. 25). Overall, the modelled probability of extirpation of the Bi-State DPS over the next 10 years is very low (1.1 percent; Coates et al. 2020, Table 1). It is important to note that individual population trends of some populations within PMUs have declined, and areas such as Sagehen and Parker Meadows (both in the South Mono PMU) have high probabilities of extirpation over the next 10 years, though the extirpation probability of the South Mono PMU is only 3.8 percent (Coates et al. 2020, Table 1). Longer-term extirpation probabilities are not available for all PMUs, but the 30-year probabilities of declining below 50 males for the North Mono Lake area (the Desert-Creek Fales, Bodie, and Mount Grant PMUs) and for the South Mono PMU were both 8 percent (Garton et al 2015, p. 14). Conservation efforts are in place to help offset declining populations such as the translocation of broods to Parker Meadows, which has shown some early signs of success. Conservation measures in other areas, including post-fire restoration, wild horse gathers, fuel reduction treatment, and pinyon-juniper removal, are further reducing the magnitude of threats. Many of the conservation efforts associated with the BSAP have only been completed in recent years or are in the process of being completed. As discussed in more detail in our full PECE analysis, 142 of the 159 identified actions in the BSAP have been initiated and are in stages of completion, meaning they are in progress, ongoing, occur annually, or have been evaluated as part of the planning process (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 45), but have not necessarily been completed. Thus, the full benefits of the conservation actions may not yet be achieved or apparent in sage-grouse population growth rates or in probabilities of extirpation, which are calculated by projecting past trends into the future. Some positive results are already apparent. For example, the translocation effort in Parker Meadows began in 2018 and has shown some E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules early signs of success in improved reproductive success and recruitment. Overall, as described in our PECE analysis (Service 2019, entire), based on studies showing the effectiveness of other conservation actions (such as pinyon-juniper removal) and on detailed implementation schedules provided by agencies participating in the BSAP, we have sufficient certainty that conservation efforts outlined in the BSAP will be implemented and effective, and will increase the viability of the species into the future. The BSAP does not remove or eliminate all threats to the species, and we expect impacts from cheatgrass, pinyon-juniper encroachment, altered wildfire regime, and climate change to continue to act on the species into the foreseeable future. Overall, however, we find that the BSAP and existing regulatory mechanisms are reducing the level of threats and increasing population resiliency across the Bi-State DPS. After evaluating threats to the species and assessing the cumulative effect of the threats under the section 4(a)(1) factors, we conclude that, due to the effects of conservation actions as analyzed under our PECE policy, the threats impacting the Bi-State DPS of the greater-sage grouse have been greatly reduced. Thus, after assessing the best available information, we conclude that the Bi-State DPS is not in danger of extinction throughout all of its range. We, therefore, proceed with determining whether the Bi-State DPS is likely to become so within the foreseeable future. Threats such as wildfire and altered fire regimes, climate change, nonnative invasive plants and native woodland succession, recreation, and others are expected to continue or increase into the future. Within the foreseeable future, we expect the individual and combined impacts of these threats to continue to increase. In particular, effects associated with climate change, such as drought, will continue to degrade habitat supporting the Bi-State DPS. However, as noted above, actions associated with the BSAP are expected to increase resiliency, redundancy, and representation of the Bi-State DPS, increasing the overall viability of the DPS such that they will be able to withstand the increased magnitude of threats into the foreseeable future. Thus, after assessing the best available information, we conclude that the BiState DPS is not likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all of its range. VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 Status Throughout a Significant Portion of Its Range Under the Act and our implementing regulations, a species may warrant listing if it is in danger of extinction or likely to become so within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Having determined that the Bi-State DPS is not in danger of extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable future throughout all of its range, we now consider whether it may be in danger of extinction or likely to become so within the foreseeable future in a significant portion of its range. The range of a species can theoretically be divided into portions in an infinite number of ways, so we first screen the potential portions of the species’ range to determine if there are any portions that warrant further consideration. To do the ‘‘screening’’ analysis, we ask whether there are portions of the species’ range for which there is substantial information indicating that: (1) The portion may be significant; and, (2) the species may be, in that portion, either in danger of extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable future. For a particular portion, if we cannot answer both questions in the affirmative, then that portion does not warrant further consideration and the species does not warrant listing because of its status in that portion of its range. Conversely, we emphasize that answering both of these questions in the affirmative is not a determination that the species is in danger of extinction or likely to become so within the foreseeable future throughout a significant portion of its range—rather, it is a threshold step to determine whether a more-detailed analysis of the issue is required. If we answer these questions in the affirmative, we then conduct a more thorough analysis to determine whether the portion does indeed meet both of the ‘‘significant portion of the range’’ prongs: (1) The portion is significant and (2) the species is, in that portion, either in danger of extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable future. Confirmation that a portion does indeed meet one of these prongs does not create a presumption, prejudgment, or other determination as to whether the species is an endangered species or threatened species. Rather, we must then undertake a more detailed analysis of the other prong to make that determination. Only if the portion does indeed meet both prongs would the species warrant listing because of its status in a significant portion of its range. At both stages in this process—the stage of screening potential portions to PO 00000 Frm 00045 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 18097 identify any that warrant further consideration, and the stage of undertaking the more detailed analysis of any portions that do warrant further consideration—it might be more efficient for us to address the ‘‘significance’’ question or the ‘‘status’’ question first. Our selection of which question to address first for a particular portion depends on the biology of the species, its range, and the threats it faces. Regardless of which question we address first, if we reach a negative answer with respect to the first question that we address, we do not need to evaluate the second question for that portion of the species’ range. For the Bi-State DPS, we chose to address the status question (i.e., identifying portions where the Bi-State DPS may be in danger of extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable future) first. To conduct this screening, we considered whether any of the threats acting on the DPS are geographically concentrated in any portion of the range at a biologically meaningful scale. We examined the following threats throughout the range of the DPS: Urbanization and habitat conversion (Factor A); infrastructure (Factor A); mining (Factor A); grazing and rangeland management (Factor A); nonnative invasive plants and native woodland succession (Factor A); wildfires and altered fire regime (Factor A); climate change, including drought (Factor A); recreation (Factor E); disease (Factor C); predation (Factor C); renewable energy (Factor A), commercial and recreational hunting (Factor B); scientific and educational uses (Factor B); pesticides and other contaminants (Factor E), as well as the potential for effects from small population size (Factor E). We identified one portion of the BiState DPS, essentially the Pine Nut PMU, that is experiencing a concentration of the following threats: Urbanization, infrastructure, wildfire (and associated isolation and fragmentation of populations), cheatgrass, livestock and feral horses, nonnative woodland succession, and recreation. Although these threats are not unique to this PMU area, they are acting at a greater intensity here (e.g., higher risks from cheatgrass invasion created by more frequent wildfires), either individually or in combination, than elsewhere in the range. In addition, the PMU’s small population size (usually less than 100 birds), coupled with the information suggesting this unit has a high projected probability of extirpation over the next 10 years (69.7 percent; Coates et al. 2020, Table 1), leads us to find that this portion meets E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 18098 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules the screening criteria of whether substantial information exists indicating the population occurring here may be threatened or endangered. We then proceeded to the significance screening question, asking whether there is substantial information indicating that this portion of the range (i.e., the Pine Nut PMU) may be significant. As an initial note, the Service’s most recent definition of ‘‘significant’’ within agency policy guidance has been invalidated by court order (see Desert Survivors v. Dep’t of the Interior, No. 16–cv–01165 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 24, 2018). Therefore, for purposes of this analysis the Service is screening for significant portions of the range by applying any reasonable definition of ‘‘significant.’’ Biological importance/ significance is often considered in terms of resiliency, redundancy, or representation. We evaluated the available information about the portion of the DPS that occupies the Pine Nut PMU in this context, assessing its significance in terms of these conservation concepts, and determined the information did not substantially indicate it may be significant. Sage-grouse in this PMU exhibit similar habitat use and behaviors to sage-grouse in the remainder of the Bi-State DPS; thus, there is no unique observable environmental usage or behavioral characteristics attributable to just this area’s population. While unique genetic characteristics have been documented in the PMU’s birds, including haplotypes not present elsewhere in the DPS, particularly in the northern portion (Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, pp. 1303, 1308), we note that each of the five other populations in the DPS also exhibit unique genetic characteristics and haplotypes. So although there is genetic differentiation between the Pine Nut PMU and other PMUs, we found no information indicating that the Pine Nut PMU’s genetic characteristics represent a unique or significant adaptive capacity compared to the remainder of the DPS. In addition, the Pine Nut PMU has the smallest number of birds compared to the other PMUs in the DPS, making up approximately 5% of the total population (see Table 1 above), and there is very limited movement of these birds into occupied areas of other PMUs. For the northern portion of this PMU, which has very few birds and little to no lek attendance reported in recent years (see the description of the Pine Nut PMU in Range and Population Estimates above), there has been no detected movement of birds to other PMUs. There is some movement of birds between the southern portion of Pine VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 Nut PMU and the Desert Creek-Fales PMU and the Bodie PMU to the south, but this has involved only very few birds. Overall, we found no substantial information that would indicate the Pine Nut PMU may be significant. While the Pine Nut PMU provides some contribution to the DPS’s overall ability to withstand catastrophic or stochastic events (redundancy and resiliency, respectively), and to adapt to changing environmental conditions (representation), the best scientific and commercial information available indicates that this contribution is very limited in scope due to its small population size and isolation from other populations. Therefore, because we could not answer both screening questions in the affirmative, we conclude that the Pine Nut PMU portion of the range does not warrant further consideration as a significant portion of the range. In addition to the Pine Nut PMU, we identified another portion of the DPS, the White Mountains PMU, where the information regarding projections of extirpation probability suggests the population may be experiencing a disproportionate response to threats. While the magnitude of most threats acting in this PMU (e.g., threats associated with cheatgrass, infrastructure, recreation, grazing, predation, and drought) are generally lower than the remainder of the range, it also has a projected high probability of extirpation (75.1 percent; Coates et al. 2020, Table 1). These projections were calculated from limited data, as completing surveys was difficult given the area’s remoteness and being at the highest elevation for the Bi-State DPS, and as a result, the authors note that some leks needed to be omitted from the analysis due to data quality issues, leks could have been missed, and the model may underrepresent abundance for that PMU (Coates et al. 2020, p. 36). (Coates et al. 2020, pp. 9, 36). However, though the model may underrepresent abundance (and thus over represent the probability of extirpation to some degree), out of an abundance of caution, we proceeded under the premise that this portion of the range meets the screening criteria of whether substantial information exists indicating the population occurring here may be threatened or endangered. Subsequently, as with the Pine Nut PMU, we then proceeded to the significance screening question, asking whether there is substantial information indicating that this portion of the range (i.e., the White Mountains PMU) may be significant. As in the Pine Nut PMU, PO 00000 Frm 00046 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 4702 sage-grouse in the White Mountains PMU exhibit similar habitat use and behaviors to sage-grouse in the remainder of the Bi-State DPS; thus, there is no unique observable environmental usage or behavioral characteristics attributable to just this area’s population. In the White Mountains PMU, unique genetic characteristics have been documented in the PMU’s birds, including haplotypes not present elsewhere in the DPS (Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, pp. 1304, 1308). However, although there is genetic differentiation between the White Mountains PMU and other PMUs, we found no information indicating that the White Mountains PMU’s genetic characteristics represent a unique or significant adaptive capacity compared to the remainder of the DPS. Additionally, the White Mountains PMU has relatively few birds compared to most other PMUs in the DPS. Though exact counts are not available due to the isolated nature of this PMU, recent surveys have found only two leks, with between zero and nine males documented per lek per year (NDOW 2018, unpublished data). Historical evidence suggests bird densities in this area have always been low (Bi-State Local Planning Group 2004, p. 108); Service 2020, pp. 31–32). Additionally, there has been no recent recorded movement of birds into occupied areas of other PMUs. Though a potential connectivity corridor exists between populations in the South Mono and White Mountains PMUs, the vegetation within this corridor has apparently changed due to woodland succession, and an aerial survey suggests that current vegetation is not suitable sagegrouse habitat (Bi-State Lek Surveillance Program 2012, p. 36; Service 2020, pp. 29–30). Overall, we found no substantial information that would indicate the White Mountains PMU may be significant. While the White Mountains PMU provides some contribution to the DPS’s overall ability to withstand catastrophic or stochastic events (redundancy and resiliency, respectively), and to adapt to changing environmental conditions (representation), the best scientific and commercial information available indicates that this contribution is very limited in scope due to its small population size and isolation from other populations. Therefore, because we could not answer both screening questions in the affirmative, we conclude that the White Mountains PMU portion of the range does not warrant further consideration as a significant portion of the range. E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / Proposed Rules jbell on DSKJLSW7X2PROD with PROPOSALS3 Because we did not identify any portions of the Bi-State DPS entity where: (1) It may be in danger of extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable future; and (2) it may be significant, a more thorough significant portion of the range analysis is not required. Therefore, we conclude, based on this screening analysis, that no portions warrant further consideration through a more detailed analysis, and the Bi-State DPS is not in danger of extinction or likely to become so within the foreseeable future within a significant portion of its range. Our approach to analyzing significant portion of the species’ range in this determination is consistent with the courts’ holdings in Desert Survivors v. Department of the Interior, No. 16–cv– VerDate Sep<11>2014 20:18 Mar 30, 2020 Jkt 250001 01165–JCS, 2018 WL 4053447 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 24, 2018); Center for Biological Diversity v. Jewell, 248 F. Supp. 3d, 946, 959 (D. Ariz. 2017); and Center for Biological Diversity v. Everson, 2020 WL 437289 (D.D.C. Jan. 28, 2020). Determination of Status Our review of the best scientific and commercial data available indicates that the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse no longer meets the definition of a threatened species. Therefore, we are withdrawing our proposed rule to list the DPS as threatened. Consequently, we are also withdrawing the associated proposed 4(d) and critical habitat rules. References Cited A complete list of references cited in this rulemaking is available on the PO 00000 Frm 00047 Fmt 4701 Sfmt 9990 18099 internet at http://www.regulations.gov and upon request from the Reno Fish and Wildlife Office (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT). Authors The primary authors of this document are the staff members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Species Assessment Team and the Reno Fish and Wildlife Office. Authority The authority for this action is the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.). Aurelia Skipwith, Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. [FR Doc. 2020–06384 Filed 3–30–20; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 4333–15–P E:\FR\FM\31MRP3.SGM 31MRP3

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 85, Number 62 (Tuesday, March 31, 2020)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 18054-18099]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2020-06384]



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Vol. 85

Tuesday,

No. 62

March 31, 2020

Part III





Department of the Interior





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Fish and Wildlife Service





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50 CFR Part 17





Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Withdrawal of the 
Proposed Rules To List the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment of 
Greater Sage-Grouse With Section 4(d) Rule and To Designate Critical 
Habitat; Proposed Rule

Federal Register / Vol. 85 , No. 62 / Tuesday, March 31, 2020 / 
Proposed Rules

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DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

Fish and Wildlife Service

50 CFR Part 17

[Docket Nos. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0106 and FWS-R8-ES-2018-0107; FF09E21000 
FXES11110900000 201]
RINs 1018-BD87 and 1018-BD88


Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Withdrawal of the 
Proposed Rules To List the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment of 
Greater Sage-Grouse With Section 4(d) Rule and To Designate Critical 
Habitat

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Proposed rule; withdrawal.

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SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), withdraw the 
proposed rule to list the Bi-State distinct population segment (DPS) of 
greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in California and 
Nevada as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as 
amended (Act). We concurrently withdraw the proposed rule under section 
4(d) of the Act and the proposed rule to designate critical habitat for 
the DPS. These withdrawals are based on our conclusion that the threats 
to the DPS as identified in the proposed listing rule no longer are as 
significant as believed at the time of publication of the 2013 proposed 
rule. We find the best scientific and commercial data available 
indicate that the threats to the DPS and its habitat, given current and 
future conservation efforts, are reduced to the point that the DPS does 
not meet the Act's definition of an ``endangered species'' or of a 
``threatened species.''

DATES: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is withdrawing proposed rules 
published on October 28, 2013 (78 FR 64328 and 64358) as of March 31, 
2020.

ADDRESSES: Relevant documents are available on the internet at either 
Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0106 or Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0107 on 
http://www.regulations.gov. Relevant documents used in the preparation 
of this withdrawal are also available for public inspection, by 
appointment, during normal business hours at the Reno Fish and Wildlife 
Office (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT).

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Lee Ann Carranza, Deputy Field 
Supervisor, Reno Fish and Wildlife Office, 1340 Financial Boulevard, 
Suite 234, Reno, NV 89502; telephone 775-861-6300. Persons who use a 
telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Relay 
Service at 800-877-8339.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 

Executive Summary

    Why we need to publish this document. Under the Act, a species may 
warrant protection through listing if it is endangered or threatened 
throughout all or a significant portion of its range. We issued a 
proposed rule to list a distinct population segment (DPS) of greater 
sage-grouse in California and Nevada (known as the Bi-State DPS) in 
2013. However, this document withdraws that proposed rule because we 
now determine that threats identified in the proposed rule have been 
reduced such that listing is not necessary for this DPS. Accordingly, 
we also withdraw the proposed rule under section 4(d) of the Act and 
the proposed critical habitat designation.
    The basis for our action. Under the Act, we may determine that a 
species is an endangered or threatened species because of any of five 
factors: (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or 
curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) overutilization for 
commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) 
disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory 
mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its 
continued existence. We have determined that threats have been reduced 
such that listing is not necessary for the Bi-State DPS of greater 
sage-grouse.
    Peer review. In accordance with our joint policy on peer review 
published in the Federal Register on July 1, 1994 (59 FR 34270), and 
our August 22, 2016, memorandum updating and clarifying the role of 
peer review of listing actions under the Act, we sought the expert 
opinions of five appropriate specialists regarding the species report. 
We received responses from three specialists, which informed this 
finding. The purpose of peer review is to ensure that our listing 
determinations, critical habitat designations, and 4(d) rules are based 
on scientifically sound data, assumptions, and analyses. The peer 
reviewers have expertise in the biology, habitat, and threats to the 
greater sage-grouse.

Acronyms and Abbreviations Used in This Document

    We use many acronyms and abbreviations throughout this document. To 
assist the reader, we provide a list of these here for easy reference:

ac = acres
Act or ESA = Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 
1531 et seq.)
BLM = Bureau of Land Management
BSAP = Bi-State Action Plan
BSLPG = Bi-State Local Planning Group
BSLSP = Bi-State Lek Surveillance Program
CDFW = California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly 
California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG))
CFR = Code of Federal Regulations
COT = Conservation Objectives Team
CPT = conservation planning tool
CRI = credible intervals
DPS = distinct population segment
EOC = Executive Oversight Committee
FR = Federal Register
ha = hectares
HTNF = Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
IPM = integrated population model
LADWP = Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
LRMP = land resource management plan
NDOW = Nevada Department of Wildlife
NEPA = National Environmental Policy Act (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.)
NFMA = National Forest Management Act (16 U.S.C. 1600 et seq.)
NRCS = Natural Resources Conservation Service
OHV = off-highway vehicle
PECE = Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making 
Listing Decisions
PEIS = Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement
PMU = population management unit
RHA = rangeland health assessment
RMP = resource management plan
Service = U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
TAC = Technical Advisory Committee
USDA = U.S. Department of Agriculture
USFS = U.S. Forest Service
USGS = U.S. Geological Survey
WAFWA = Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies
WNv = West Nile virus

Previous Federal Actions

    The Bi-State DPS of the greater sage-grouse has a long and complex 
rulemaking history. Here, we will discuss only the major Federal 
actions related to the species. For a detailed description of previous 
Federal actions, please refer to the previous withdrawal of the 
proposed listing rule, published on April 23, 2015 (80 FR 22828), and 
the Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing 
Decisions (PECE) analysis we prepared as a supporting document for this 
determination (Service 2019, pp. 1-6).
    On October 28, 2013, we published a proposed rule to list the Bi-
State DPS as a threatened species with a 4(d) rule (78 FR 64358). On 
that same day, we published a proposed rule to designate critical 
habitat for the Bi-State DPS (78 FR 64328).
    On April 23, 2015, we withdrew the proposed listing rule, the 
proposed 4(d) rule, and the proposed critical habitat rule (80 FR 
22828). This withdrawal

[[Page 18055]]

was based on our conclusion that the threats to the DPS as identified 
in the proposed listing rule were no longer as significant as believed 
at the time of publication of the proposed rule. We found that the best 
scientific and commercial data available indicated that the threats to 
the DPS and its habitat, given current and future conservation efforts 
as analyzed under PECE, were reduced to the point that the DPS did not 
meet the Act's definition of an ``endangered species'' or of a 
``threatened species.''
    On March 9, 2016, Desert Survivors, the Center for Biological 
Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and Western Watershed Project filed 
suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of 
California. The suit challenged the withdrawal of the proposal to list 
the Bi-State DPS. On May 5, 2018, the court issued a decision. The 
April 23, 2015, withdrawal was vacated and remanded to the Service for 
further consideration. The court's action reinstated the prior proposed 
rules to list and to designate critical habitat for the Bi-State DPS, 
thereby returning the process to the proposed rule stage, and the 
status of the Bi-State DPS effectively reverted to that of a species 
proposed for listing for the purposes of consultation under section 7 
of the Act. The court's action also reinstated the proposed 4(d) rule 
and the proposed critical habitat designation for the Bi-State DPS.
    On April 12, 2019, we published in the Federal Register (84 FR 
14909) a document that announced that the proposed rules were 
reinstated and the public comment periods were reopened for 60 days and 
that we would publish a final listing determination on or before 
October 1, 2019.
    On October 1, 2019, we announced a 6-month extension of the final 
listing determination to April 1, 2020 (84 FR 52058). We took that 
action based on substantial disagreement regarding the sufficiency and 
accuracy of the available data relevant to the proposed listing, which 
made it necessary to solicit additional information. That document 
reopened the public comment period on the proposed listing and critical 
habitat rules for an additional 30 days.

Supporting Documents

    We prepared a species report for the Bi-State DPS (Service 2020, 
entire). The species report represents a compilation of the best 
scientific and commercial data available concerning the status of the 
species, including the impacts of past, present, and future factors 
(both negative and beneficial) affecting the species. The Service sent 
the species report to five independent peer reviewers and received 
three responses. The Service also sent the species report to all 
pertinent Federal, Tribal, and State partners, including scientists 
with expertise in sage-grouse and sage-brush habitat in the Bi-State 
area. We received reviews from six partners (Humboldt-Toiyabe National 
Forest (HTNB), Inyo National Forest, two Bureau of Land Management 
(BLM) offices: Bishop and Carson City, the California Department of 
Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the Nevada Department of Wildlife 
(NDOW)). These comments have been incorporated into the species report 
and informed this document.

Summary of Changes From the Proposed Rule

    Based upon our review of the public comments, Federal and State 
agency comments, peer review comments, issues addressed at the public 
hearings, and any new relevant information that became available since 
the publication of the proposal and including new relevant information 
that has become available since the prior withdrawal decision, we 
reevaluated our proposed listing rule and made changes as appropriate 
in this withdrawal. Other than minor clarifications and incorporation 
of additional information on the species' biology and populations, this 
determination differs from the proposal in the following ways:
    (1) A different status determination. Based on our analyses of the 
potential threats to the species, and our consideration of partially 
completed, ongoing and future conservation efforts (as outlined below 
in Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing 
Decisions), we have determined that the Bi-State DPS should not be 
listed as a threatened species. Specifically, we have determined that 
conservation efforts (as outlined in the Bi-State Action Plan (BSAP), 
Agency commitment letters, and our detailed PECE analysis (all of which 
are available at either Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0106 or Docket No. 
FWS-R8-ES-2018-0107 on http://www.regulations.gov as well as the 
Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) comprehensive project database)) 
will continue to be implemented because (to date) we have a documented 
track record of active participation and implementation by the 
signatory agencies and commitments to continue implementation into the 
future.
    Conservation measures, such as (but not limited to) pinyon-juniper 
removal, establishment of conservation easements for critical brood-
rearing habitat, cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) removal, permanent and 
seasonal closure of roads near leks, removal and marking of fencing, 
and restoration of riparian/meadow habitat have been occurring over the 
past decade, are currently occurring, and have been prioritized and 
placed on the agencies' implementation schedules for future 
implementation. Agencies have committed to remain participants in the 
BSAP and to continue conservation of the DPS and its habitat. 
Additionally, the BSAP has sufficient methods for determining the type 
and location of the most beneficial conservation actions to be 
implemented, including continued development of new population and 
threats information in the future that will guide conservation efforts. 
As a result of these actions, this document withdraws the proposed 
rules as published on October 28, 2013 (78 FR 64328; 78 FR 64358).
    We have also updated our Significant Portion of the Range analysis 
based on a recent court finding regarding the policy.
    (2) Addition of PECE analysis. This document includes the Policy 
for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions 
section, which includes some information presented in the Available 
Conservation Measures section of the proposed listing rule.
    (3) Population impacts. This document includes a discussion of the 
impacts of small population size and population isolation on the Bi-
State DPS.
    (4) New information. Following publication of the proposed listing 
rule, we received new information pertinent to this rulemaking action. 
Some of the information was in response to our request for scientific 
peer review of the proposed listing rule, while other information was a 
result of new literature now available, or updated regulations. We 
incorporated all new information into the Species Report (Service 2020, 
entire), which is available on the internet at http://www.regulations.gov under either Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0106 or 
Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0107, as well as within this document where 
appropriate. New information includes (but is not limited to):
     A variety of biological or habitat clarifications, such as 
hen movement distances, nesting success, and invasive plant species 
influence on sagebrush-habitat dynamics.
     Updated trend and population analyses. Multiple new papers 
examining the population dynamics and trends of the Bi-State DPS 
(Coates et al. 2014, entire; Coates et al. 2018, entire; Mathews et al. 
2018, entire; Coates et al.

[[Page 18056]]

2020, entire). These studies are incorporated into the Species Report 
and discussed throughout this document.
     Two genetic evaluations, one of which concluded there are 
three or four unique genetic clusters within the Bi-State area (Oyler-
McCance et al. 2014, p. 8), and a second that concluded there were five 
unique genetic clusters (Tebbenkamp 2014, p. 18). Tebbenkamp (2014) did 
not evaluate the Pine Nut population; thus, six populations may have 
been identified by Tebbenkamp (2014) had the Pine Nut population data 
been available.
     New information on the effectiveness of pinyon-juniper 
removal has become available in recent years (Prochazka et al. 2017, 
entire; Severson et al. 2017, entire; Sandford et al. 2017, entire; 
Coates et al. 2017b, entire; Olsen 2019, entire). These studies are 
incorporated into the Species Report and discussed throughout this 
document.
    (5) New ESA factor D analysis. In the 2013 proposed listing rule, 
we analyzed the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms in a 
separate section. Here, we evaluate the effects of existing regulatory 
mechanisms within each threat analysis, rather than evaluating 
regulatory mechanisms in a separate section, so that it is clear how 
the existing regulatory mechanisms relate to the stressor being 
analyzed.
    (6) Significant portion of the range (SPR) analysis. Since 2013, we 
have a new policy regarding the Service's interpretation of the phrase 
``significant portion of the range'' (79 FR 37578; July 1, 2014). We 
also have new guidance regarding application of that policy (Service 
2017, entire), which was published subsequent to the 2015 withdrawal of 
the proposed rule. Additionally, certain parts of the policy have been 
invalidated by court orders. We have completed our SPR analysis for the 
Bi-State DPS in accordance with the 2014 policy and the 2017 guidance 
as further refined by applicable court decisions.

Background

    In our 12-month findings on petitions to list three entities of 
sage-grouse (75 FR 13910, March 23, 2010), we found that the Bi-State 
population of greater sage-grouse in California and Nevada meets our 
criteria to qualify as a DPS of the greater sage-grouse under Service 
policy (61 FR 4722, February 7, 1996). We reaffirmed this finding in 
the October 28, 2013, proposed listing rule (78 FR 64358) and do so 
again in this document. This determination is based principally on 
genetic information (Benedict et al. 2003, p. 308; Oyler-McCance et al. 
2005, p. 1307), where the DPS was found to be both markedly separated 
and significant to the remainder of the greater sage-grouse taxon. The 
Bi-State DPS defines the far southwestern limit of the species' range 
along the border of eastern California and western Nevada (Stiver et 
al. 2006, pp. 1-11; 71 FR 76058, December 19, 2006).
    Although the Bi-State DPS is a genetically unique and markedly 
separate population, the DPS has similar life-history and habitat 
requirements to the greater sage-grouse throughout the rest of its 
range. In the October 28, 2013, proposed listing rule (78 FR 64358), 
the species report, and this document, we use information specific to 
the Bi-State DPS where available but still apply scientific management 
principles for greater sage-grouse that are relevant to the Bi-State 
DPS's management needs and strategies. This practice is followed by the 
wildlife and land management agencies that have responsibility for 
management of both the DPS and its habitat.
    A detailed discussion of the Bi-State DPS's description, taxonomy, 
habitat (sagebrush ecosystem), seasonal habitat selection, life-history 
characteristics, home range, life expectancy and survival rates, 
historical and current range distribution, population estimates and lek 
(sage-grouse breeding complex) counts, population trends, and land 
ownership information is available in the species report (Service 2020, 
entire). The species report represents a compilation of the best 
scientific and commercial data available concerning the status of the 
Bi-State DPS, including the past, present, and future threats to this 
DPS. The species report and other materials relating to this final 
agency action can be found at http://www.regulations.gov under either 
Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0106 or Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0107.

Habitat and Life History

    Sage-grouse depend on a variety of shrub and shrub-steppe 
vegetation communities throughout their life cycle (Schroeder et al. 
2004, p. 364). Sagebrush is the most widespread vegetation in the 
intermountain lowlands of the western United States and is considered 
one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America (West and Young 
2000, p. 259; Knick et al. 2003, p. 612; Miller et al. 2011, p. 147). 
Most species of sagebrush are killed by fire; historical fire-return 
intervals are estimated to be as long as 350 years (West 1983, p. 341; 
Miller and Eddleman 2000, p. 17; West and Young 2000, p. 259; Baker 
2011, pp. 191-192). Natural sagebrush recolonization in burned areas 
depends on the presence of adjacent live plants for a seed source or on 
the seed bank, if present, and requires from decades to over a century 
for full recovery (Miller and Eddleman 2000, p. 17; Baker 2011, pp. 
194-195).
    Sage-grouse require large, interconnected expanses of sagebrush 
with healthy, native understories, in part to accommodate their 
seasonal shifts in habitat selection within the sagebrush ecosystem 
(Service 2020, p. 11). Sage-grouse exhibit strong site fidelity 
(loyalty to a particular area) to migration corridors and seasonal 
habitats, including breeding, nesting, brood-rearing, and wintering 
areas; they exhibit this fidelity even when a particular area may no 
longer be of value, limiting the species' adaptability to habitat 
changes (Service 2020, p. 11). However, recent research has suggested 
that this high degree of site fidelity may be more flexible than has 
traditionally been considered, at least with respect to certain 
restoration actions (e.g., tree removal; Sandford et al. 2017, p. 64; 
Severson et al. 2017, p. 55).
    During the spring breeding season, male sage-grouse gather to 
perform courtship displays at leks or traditional strutting grounds. 
Areas of bare soil, short-grass steppe, windswept ridges, exposed 
knolls, or other relatively open sites typically serve as leks 
(Patterson 1952, p. 83; Connelly et al. 2004, p. 3-7 and references 
therein). The proximity, configuration, and abundance of nesting 
habitat are key factors influencing lek location (Connelly et al. 1981, 
pp. 153-154; Connelly et al. 2000a, p. 970). Leks can be formed 
opportunistically at any appropriate site within or adjacent to nesting 
habitat (Connelly et al. 2000a, p. 970); therefore, lek habitat 
availability is not considered a limiting factor for sage-grouse 
(Schroeder et al. 1999, p. 4). Leks range in size from less than 0.04 
ha (0.1 ac) to over 36 ha (90 ac) (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 4-3) and 
can host from a few to hundreds of males (Johnsgard 2002, p. 112).
    The distances sage-grouse move between seasonal habitats are highly 
variable across the occupied range (Connelly et al. 1988, pp. 119-121). 
Migration can occur between distinct winter, breeding, and summer areas 
or the seasonal-use areas may be variously integrated (e.g., winter and 
breeding areas may be the same and brood-rearing sites are disjunct). 
Information available regarding seasonal migrations and migratory 
corridors for sage-grouse in the Bi-State area is variable. Some local 
breeding complexes (a general

[[Page 18057]]

aggregation of birds associated with a particular lek or collection of 
leks in relatively close proximity to one another) remain fairly 
resident throughout the year while others demonstrate a more itinerant 
nature (Casazza et al. 2009, p. 8).
    Still, all sage-grouse gradually move from sagebrush uplands to 
more mesic areas (moist areas such as upland meadows) during the late 
brood-rearing/summer period (3 weeks post-hatch) in response to summer 
desiccation of herbaceous vegetation (Connelly et al. 2000a, p. 971; 
Atamian et al. 2010, p. 1538; Connelly et al. 2011b, pp. 76-77 and 
references therein; Pratt et al. 2017, p. 635). Brood-rearing foraging 
habitats with increased perennial forb cover and plant species 
richness, greater meadow to sagebrush edge (ratio of perimeter to 
area), and a greater distance from woodlands provide for an increased 
probability of successful recruitment (Casazza et al. 2011, pp. 162-
163). Sage-grouse will use free water, although they do not require it 
since they obtain water from their food. However, natural water bodies 
and reservoirs provide mesic areas often rich in succulent forb and 
insect food sources, thereby attracting sage-grouse hens with broods 
(Connelly et al. 2004, p. 4-12).
    Non-migratory sage-grouse populations have been described as those 
with seasonal movements of less than 10 km (6.2 mi; Connelly et al. 
2000a, pp. 968-969), while birds in migratory populations may travel 
well over 100 km (62 mi) (Tack et al. 2012, p. 65). Despite the 
documentation of extensive seasonal movements in this species, 
dispersal (permanent rather than seasonal movement) abilities of sage-
grouse to other areas are assumed to be low (Fedy et al. 2012, p. 1066; 
Tack et al. 2012, p. 65; Davis et al. 2014, p. 716). Sage-grouse 
dispersal is overall poorly understood and appears sporadic, if not 
rare (Service 2020, p. 12).

Range and Population Estimates

    The Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse historically occurred 
throughout most of Mono, eastern Alpine, and northern Inyo Counties, 
California (Hall et al. 2008, p. 97), and portions of Carson City, 
Douglas, Esmeralda, Lyon, Mineral, and perhaps Storey County in Nevada 
(Gullion and Christensen 1957, pp. 131-132; Espinosa 2019, pers. 
comm.). The current range of the DPS in California is presumed to be 
reduced from the historical range (Leach and Hensley 1954, p. 386; Hall 
1995, p. 54; Schroeder et al. 2004, pp. 368-369), but the extent of 
range loss is not well understood.
    Current management of the Bi-State DPS employs Population 
Management Units (PMUs) for Nevada and California as tools for defining 
and monitoring sage-grouse distribution. The PMU boundaries represent 
generalized populations or local breeding complexes and were delineated 
based on aggregations of leks, known seasonal habitats, and telemetry 
data. Six PMUs were designated for the Bi-State DPS (from north to 
south): Pine Nut, Desert Creek-Fales, Bodie, Mount Grant, South Mono, 
and White Mountains (Figure 1; Table 1). These six PMUs represent a 
combined total of approximately 50 active leks (see Table 1 below; 
Service 2020, pp. 21-33). Leks are considered either active (e.g., two 
or more strutting males during at least 2 years in a 5-year period), 
inactive (e.g., surveyed three or more times during one breeding season 
with no birds detected and no sign (e.g., droppings) observed), 
historical (e.g., no strutting activity for 20 years and have been 
checked according to State protocol at least intermittently), or 
unknown/pending (e.g., sign was observed, and one or no strutting males 
observed, or a lek that had activity the prior year but was not 
surveyed or surveyed under unsuitable conditions during the current 
year and reported one or no strutting males).
BILLING CODE 4333-15-P

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[GRAPHIC] [TIFF OMITTED] TP31MR20.012

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  Table 1--Bi-State DPS PMUs, PMU Size, Estimated Suitable Sage-Grouse Habitat, Average Number of Leks, Average
              Number of Active Leks, and Range of Maximum Males on Leks Within Each PMU (2003-2018)
  [Number pairs in parentheses are lower and upper limits of the 95 percent credible interval. Area values for
                 ``Total Size'' and ``Estimated Suitable Habitat'' may not sum due to rounding]
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                                  Estimated
                                Total size in     suitable                       Average number      Range in
             PMU                  hectares       habitat in     Average number   of active leks    maximum male
                                (acres)  (*)      hectares      of leks  (***)   (***[dagger])    counts  (****)
                                                (acres)  (**)
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Pine Nut.....................         232,440          77,848  7.3 (2.0, 9.0).  1.8 (0.3, 4.7).  0-67
                                    (574,372)       (192,367)
Desert Creek-Fales                    229,858         105,281  12.8 (8.3,       6.8 (5.0, 9.7).  61-220
 [dagger][dagger].                  (567,992)       (260,155)   15.0).
Mount Grant [dagger][dagger].         282,907          45,786  9.6 (5.0, 11.0)  4.4 (1.3, 7.0).  12-220
                                    (699,079)       (113,139)
Bodie[dagger][dagger]........         141,490         105,698  17.3 (12.3,      13.1 (9.7,       137-512
                                    (349,630)       (261,187)   20.0).           16.7).
South Mono...................         234,508         138,123  15.6 (12.3, 19)  13.3 (11.0,      172-418
                                    (579,482)       (341,311)                    16.7).
White Mountains..............         709,768          53,452  2 + (not         2 + (not         Not available
                                  (1,753,875)       (132,083)   available).      available).
Total (all PMUs combined)....       1,830,972         526,188  64.6 (41.9,      41.4 (29.3,      427-1,409
                                  (4,524,430)     (1,300,238)   76.0).           56.8).
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
* BSLPG (2004, pp. 11, 32, 63, 102, 127, 153).
** Bi-State TAC (2012, unpublished data); BLM (2014, unpublished data).
*** Derived from Mathews et al. 2018, Table 6 and Figure 17.
**** Derived from NDOW and CDFW lek databases. Low and high counts occurred in 2008 and 2012, respectively.
  However, there was variation in annual peak male counts across PMUs; therefore, column does not sum to total.
[dagger] Active--two or more strutting males during at least 2 years in a 5-year period.
[dagger][dagger] Part of the North Mono population segment in some early population analyses.

    Sage-grouse populations in the Bi-State area appear to be isolated 
to varying degrees from one another (Casazza et al. 2009, entire; 
Oyler-McCance and Casazza 2011, p. 10; Tebbenkamp 2012, p. 66; Oyler-
McCance et al. 2014, p. 8; Tebbenkamp 2014, p. 18). Birds in the White 
Mountains PMU as well as those in the South Mono PMU are largely 
isolated from sage-grouse populations in the remainder of the Bi-State 
DPS (Casazza et al. 2009, pp. 34, 41; Oyler-McCance and Casazza 2011, 
p. 10; Tebbenkamp 2012, p. 66). Traditionally, the Pine Nut PMU was 
presumed isolated; however, recent data show birds are capable of 
moving south into the Sweetwater Mountains in the Desert Creek-Fales 
PMU and even further south into the Bodie PMU (USGS 2014b, entire). It 
is not apparent that birds leaving the Pine Nuts are returning. While 
adults are unlikely to switch breeding populations, it is likely that 
genetic material is transferred among these northern populations 
through the natural movements of young of the year birds, as long as 
there are established populations available in which to emigrate. 
However, fine-scale genetic differentiation among sage-grouse 
populations is at a relatively small geographic scope (approximately 10 
km (6 mi)), suggesting dispersal among populations is highly restricted 
(Jahner et al. 2016, pp. 8-9).
    Two independent genetic evaluations have concluded there are three 
or four (Oyler-McCance et al. (2014, p. 8) or five (Tebbenkamp 2014, p. 
18) unique genetic clusters in the Bi-State area. The latter study did 
not evaluate the Pine Nut population (Pine Nut PMU), which has been 
found to be unique (Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 8). Based on this 
information, we presume that there are likely three to six populations 
or groups of birds in the Bi-State area that largely operate 
demographically independent of one another.
    Four separate statistical approaches to assessing the population 
trend of the Bi-State DPS have been conducted, with two of these 
approaches being repeated following additional years of data 
collection. The four approaches are: (1) Connelly et al. 2004; (2) 
WAFWA 2008, (3) Garton et al. (2011 and 2015); and (4) U.S. Geological 
Survey (USGS) 2014, 2018, and 2019 (Coates et al. 2014, Coates et al. 
2018, Mathews et al. 2018; Coates et al. 2020). In 2004, WAFWA 
conducted a partial population trend analysis for the Bi-State area 
(Connelly et al. 2004, chapter 6). The WAFWA recognizes four 
populations of sage-grouse in the Bi-State area, which represent the 
same overall extent delineated by the six PMUs described in the 2012 
BSAP and this document. Two of the WAFWA populations (North Mono Lake 
and South Mono Lake) had sufficient data for trend analysis (Connelly 
et al. 2004, pp. 6-60 to 6-62). The North Mono Lake population 
encompasses the Bodie, Mount Grant, and Desert Creek-Fales PMUs, while 
the South Mono Lake population encompasses the South Mono PMU. The 
North Mono Lake population displayed a significant negative trend from 
1965 to 2003, and the South Mono Lake population displayed a positive 
numerical trend, albeit not statistically significant, over this same 
period (Connelly et al. 2004, pp. 6-69 to 6-70). In 2008, WAFWA (2008, 
Appendix D) conducted a trend analysis on the same two populations 
identified above using a different statistical method for the periods 
from 1965 to 2007, 1965 to 1985, and 1986 to 2007. The trend for the 
North Mono Lake population, as measured by maximum male attendance at 
leks, was negative from 1965 to 2007 and 1965 to 1985, but variable 
from 1986 to 2007; results suggest an increasing trend beginning in 
about 2000. Results for the South Mono Lake population suggested a 
negative trend from 1965 to 2007, a stable trend from 1965 to 1985, and 
a variable trend from 1986 to 2007; these results also suggest a 
positive trend beginning around 2000.
    In 2011, Garton et al. (2011, pp. 324-330) used a new approach to 
conduct a third trend analysis on the same populations used in the two 
previous WAFWA analyses. In this study, the average number of males per 
lek in the

[[Page 18060]]

North Mono Lake population declined by 35 percent and the average 
number of males per active lek declined by 41 percent from the 1965-
1969 to 2000-2007 assessment periods (Garton et al. 2011, p. 324). 
Based on a reconstructed minimum population estimate for males from 
1965 to 2007, the overall population showed irregular fluctuations 
between peaks in 1970 and 1987 of 520 to 670 males, with lows above 100 
and no consistent long-term trend over the 40-year period. In the South 
Mono Lake population, the average number of males per lek increased by 
218 percent from the 1965-1969 to 1985-1989 assessment periods but 
declined by 49 percent from the 1985-1989 to 2000-2007 assessment 
periods (Garton et al. 2011, p. 325). Based on reconstructed minimum 
male counts, the population showed no obvious trend through time with 
between 200 and 600 males attending leks. The average annual rate of 
change for both populations suggested that population growth has been, 
at times, both positive and negative over the past 40 years (Garton et 
al. 2011, pp. 324-330).
    In 2015, the researcher updated this analysis by accumulating and 
analyzing several years of additional of data (Garton et al. 2015, 
entire). The updated estimates of population performance largely 
remained unchanged, while the outlook for persistence improved. For the 
North Mono Lake population, the estimated minimum number of males 
increased by 25 percent in 2013 as compared to 2007, while the 
probability of declining below a (researcher-defined) quasi-extinction 
threshold decreased (Garton et al. 2015, pp. 13-14). For the South Mono 
Lake population, the estimated minimum number of males decreased by six 
percent in 2013 as compared to 2007, although the probability of 
declining below the quasi-extinction threshold remained generally 
unchanged. For both populations, the predicted population size in 30 
and 100 years increased in 2013 as compared to 2007 (Garton et al. 
2011, pp. 376-377; Garton et al. 2015, p. 45). This approach suggests 
both of these populations will remain relatively small, as they have 
historically. Modeled weighted probabilities of either population 
declining below an effective population sizes of 50 individuals in 30 
and 100 years are generally low (approximately 8 percent in 30 years 
and 22 percent in 100 years for both populations; Garton et al. 2015, 
p. 14).
    In 2014, the USGS completed an analysis of population trends in the 
Bi-State area spanning the years 2003 to 2012 (Coates et al. 2014, 
entire). This analysis, termed an Integrated Population Model (IPM), 
integrates a variety of data such as lek counts and vital rates to 
inform an estimate of lambda (population growth) within the DPS. This 
analysis evaluated several populations in the Bi-State area including 
the Pine Nuts (Pine Nut PMU), Fales (California portion of the Desert 
Creek-Fales PMU), Desert Creek (Nevada Portion of the Desert Creek-
Fales PMU), Bodie Hills (Bodie PMU), Parker Meadows (South Mono PMU), 
and Long Valley (South Mono PMU). It did not evaluate the populations 
in the Mount Grant or White Mountains PMUs due to data limitations. 
Results at that time suggested a stable trend in population growth 
across the entire Bi-State area between 2003 and 2012 (i.e., both 
increasing and decreasing at an equal rate; Coates et al. 2014, p. 19). 
However, the trend in population growth was variable among populations 
(Coates et al. 2014, pp. 14-15).
    Since the 2013 proposed rule and the 2015 withdrawal of the 
proposed listing rule, this analysis has been updated, once using a 13-
year dataset spanning the years 2003 through 2015, again using 15 years 
of data spanning the years 2003 through 2017, and most recently using 
an approach that segmented the trends into three time intervals (Coates 
et al. 2018, entire; Mathews et al. 2018, entire; Coates et al. 2020, 
p. 8). The later approach was adopted to account for population cycling 
in sage-grouse; that is, regular periods of growth and decline 
naturally experienced by sage-grouse rangewide (Garton et al. 2011, p. 
338). Indeed, it became apparent after analyzing the 13-year and 15-
year datasets that the resulting estimates of population growth rates 
were being biased low due to an overrepresentation of down cycle years. 
To alleviate this bias, the latest trend analysis analyzes three time 
intervals that span one, two, and three cycles, with the start and stop 
points occurring in the troughs of a cycle. The three time intervals 
are 1995-2018, 2001-2018, and 2008-2018. Not all populations had 
sufficient historical data to evaluate all three time periods and thus 
analysis was constrained to one or two time periods depending on the 
population. The most recent analysis includes results from the Mount 
Grant and White Mountains PMUs, which were previously excluded due to 
insufficient data.
    The results of the most recent iteration of the IPM suggests a 
general pattern of population cycling within an otherwise stable 
population across the Bi-State DPS with additional evidence that 
oscillations were influenced by drought conditions in recent years 
(Coates et al. 2018, pp. 250, 252; Coates et al. 2020, p. 27). 
Furthermore, variation among individual PMU trends was apparent. The 
credible intervals (CRIs) reported in this study represent the range of 
interannual variation in lambda; that is, while annual median 
population growth for the Bi-State DPS as a whole in the period 1995-
2019 is 1.018 (or approximately a 2 percent annual increase), the CRI 
reported (0.737-1.418) represents the variation in estimated lambda as 
it cycles from low to high over the study period, rather than the error 
in the median estimate for any given year.
    As discussed above, this analysis estimated that, across the Bi-
State as a whole, estimated median population growth was 1.018 (CRI = 
0.737-1.418) from 1995 through 2018, 0.989 (CRI = 0.677-1.343) from 
2001 through 2018, and 0.988 (CRI = 0.704-1.304) from 2008 through 2018 
(Coates et al. 2020, Table 3). More specifically, over the past decade 
only the Bodie Hills and Parker Meadows population demonstrated an 
average annual positive growth (lambda = 1.061 and lambda = 1.048, 
respectively). The remaining populations including Mount Grant (lambda 
= 0.989), Fales, (lambda = 0.965), Pine Nut (lambda = 0.835), Desert 
Creek (lambda = 0.938), Long Valley (lambda = 0.96), and the White 
Mountains (lambda = 0.85; Coates et al. 2020, Table 3) averaged slight 
negative growth, although in each case the 95 percent CRI overlapped 1. 
Additional analysis suggests that over the past 5 years performance of 
some individual leks in Long Valley, Fales, Bodie Hills, Mount Grant, 
and to a lesser extent Sagehen (a population in the South Mono PMU) 
have been trending (negatively) in a pattern that deviates from the Bi-
State at large (Coates et al. 2020, Table 3). This analysis suggests 
that alternative factors (such as anthropogenic disturbance) and not 
climate or weather may be acting to influence these specific sites.
    In general, these four approaches (with some being run more than 
once) suggest that the trend in population growth within the Bi-State 
has fluctuated over the past 40 years (both increased and decreased), 
but over the entire timeframe has remained relatively stable. It 
appears that some populations (Pine Nut, Mount Grant, Bodie and Desert 
Creek) display greater variation in population growth (both positive 
and negative) and that trends among populations are variable (WAFWA 
2008, Appendix D; Garton et al. 2011, p. 324, Coates et al. 2020, p. 
34). Differences in

[[Page 18061]]

population trends across the same time periods in the newest study 
(compared to previous studies) may be due to the fact that the previous 
studies did not correct for the effects of population cycling (Coates 
et al. 2020, p. 30).
    Two studies forecasted the probability that some populations would 
become extirpated. Garton et al. (2015, p. 41) used their reconstructed 
male counts to forecast future probabilities of population persistence 
assuming that past conditions persist into the future (a potentially 
unrealistic assumption). They conclude that the probabilities of 
declining below a quasi-extinction threshold (as defined by less than 
50 breeding adults per population) were approximately 8 and 22 percent 
over the next 30 and 100 years, respectively, for both the North Mono 
Lake and South Mono Lake populations. Furthermore, Garton et al. (2015, 
p. 41) indicate that long-term persistence (as defined by more than 500 
breeding adults per population, a standard number for persistence 
studies) for both core populations has an estimated 100 percent 
probability of dropping below this 500-adult threshold in the next 30 
years. However, the researchers acknowledge the cyclic nature of sage-
grouse populations and note that these populations have already been 
both above and below this mark in previous years, which is part of that 
natural cycling. Furthermore, model projections suggest that, both over 
the near term (30 years) and the long term, the North Mono Lake and 
South Mono Lake populations have a relative high probability of 
maintaining between 50 and 500 breeding adults. Thus, in these two core 
populations immediate genetic concerns (e.g., inbreeding depression) 
are not apparent, but concern over maintaining long-term genetic and 
demographic viability remains.
    Coates et al. (2020, p. 41; Table 1) estimated 10-year extirpation 
probability based on the number of runs of the IPM where populations 
went to zero. Probabilities of extirpation ranged greatly for 
individual PMUs and populations within the PMUs, with highest 
extirpation probabilities in the Pine Nuts PMU (69.7 percent), the 
White Mountains PMU (75.1 percent), and the Sagehen and Parker Meadows 
populations of the South Mono PMU (74.8 and 64.3 percent, respectively) 
(Coates et al. 2020, Table 1). The Bi-State DPS as a whole has a 1.1 
percent extirpation probability in the next 10 years, and the Desert-
Creek Fales PMU (9.0 percent), the Bodie Hills PMU (2.4 percent), and 
the South Mono PMU as a whole (3.8 percent), as well as its largest 
population (Long Valley; 7.9 percent) all have low probabilities of 
extirpation (Coates et al. 2020, Table 1). Some of these extirpation 
probabilities are lower than those calculated by Garton et al. (2015), 
likely because of differences in methods. The two studies also used 
different data sets, with Garton et al. (2015) using reconstructed male 
counts, and Coates et al. (2020) using multiple data sources for the 
IPM, including demographic and lek count data.
    Thus, even though some populations in this most recent model have 
high probabilities of extirpation over the next ten years, the DPS as a 
whole is likely to persist over this time period. These extinction 
probabilities are created from continuing and forecasting past trends 
into the future, and thus likely do not reflect the effects of 
conservation measures started or completed in recent years.
    Finally, the most recent population study included a PMU 
distribution analysis to examine short-term changes in population 
distribution across the Bi-State DPS. This analysis concluded that some 
parts of the Bi-State DPS are contracting, with the greatest 
contractions in acres of occupied habitat occurring in the Pine Nut, 
Fales, Sagehen, and White Mountains populations (Coates et al. 2020, p. 
51-54). However, distributional area in the Bodie Hills is increasing 
(Coates et al. 2020, p. 54). As a whole, the Bi-State DPS showed some 
evidence of range contraction between 2008 and 2018, though the 95 
percent CRI overlapped zero ((-0.07 [-0.19, 0.07]) (Coates et al. 2020, 
p. 51).
    Following are brief accounts of each PMU.
    (1) The Pine Nut PMU has the fewest sage-grouse (Median = 33; CRI = 
0-73 individuals in 2018; Coates et al. 2020, p. 33) and the least 
number of active leks of the Bi-State PMUs. The population in the Pine 
Nut PMU has some level of connectivity with the Desert Creek-Fales PMU 
and potentially also with the Bodie and Mount Grant PMUs. The most 
significant impacts in this PMU are wildfire, invasive species, 
woodland encroachment, urbanization, and infrastructure.
    Historically, a single lek in the northern portion of the Pine Nut 
Mountains (known as Mill Canyon Dry Lake) was the only known 
consistently active lek in this PMU. From 2000 through 2013, the 
average male attendance at the Mill Canyon Dry Lake lek was 
approximately 14 males (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 17). Since 2013, activity 
on this lek has essentially ceased. An additional lek in the southern 
extent of the Pine Nut mountain range has periodically been reported 
but at this point is not considered active. Aerial surveys over the 
past few years typically detect birds in this area but actual strutting 
activity is uncertain. It is unclear if this southern lek has been 
abandoned, or if the original documentation just captured a rare event 
or simply misclassified random bird sightings for actual strutting 
activity. Over the past several years, two newly discovered lek sites 
in the Buckskin Range appear to be the only reliably active strutting 
grounds in this PMU (NDOW 2018, unpublished data). Both lek sites are 
small with two to five males apiece. The most recent results from the 
IPM suggests population growth in this PMU has declined on average six 
percent annually over the past decade (2008-2018; Median [lambda] = 
0.835; CRI = 0.234-1.94; Coates et al. 2020, p. 41).
    Ongoing conservation efforts in this PMU include an acquisition of 
land containing high priority targets identified in the 2012 BSAP, 
which will help limit the effects of urban and exurban development. 
This 5,870 ha (14,500 ac) acquisition by the Carson City BLM has been 
approved and is anticipated to finalize in the spring of 2020. Other 
completed, ongoing, or planned conservation actions in the Pine Nut PMU 
include pinyon-juniper removal, horse gathers, removal of nonnative 
invasive plants, fuel reduction treatments, road closure, and fence 
removal (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire).
    (2) The Desert Creek-Fales PMU straddles the Nevada-California 
border and contains two populations, one in each State. This PMU 
includes two breeding complexes: Desert Creek (Nevada) and Fales 
(California). The populations in the Desert Creek-Fales PMU have some 
level of connectivity with the Pine Nut PMU and potentially also with 
the Bodie and Mount Grant PMUs. The most significant impacts in this 
PMU are wildfire, invasive species (specifically conifer encroachment), 
infrastructure, and urbanization.
    The NDOW uses data from six active leks to evaluate the trend and 
to tally maximum male attendance in the Desert Creek breeding complex. 
The long-term average male attendance is approximately 17.7 males per 
lek (Bi-State TAC 2017, p. 8). This average is influenced by one of 
these leks becoming inactive, with no males counted within the last 8 
years. This lek might have moved locations, but this possibility 
remains unconfirmed. In 2012, a previously undocumented lek was 
discovered to the east of Nevada State Route 338 near Dalzell Canyon; 
24

[[Page 18062]]

males were documented strutting on this lek. Over the last 7 years, 
this lek has remained active but counts have been small (<5). Three 
additional lek sites have also been discovered over the past 5 years. 
The most recent results from the IPM suggest population growth in this 
PMU has declined in the past decade. Estimated median population 
abundance in 2018 was 325 (CRI = 163-542; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34) 
individuals. Estimated median population growth from 2001 through 2018 
was 0.939 (CRI = 0.348-1.499) and from 2008 through 2018 was 0.938 (CRI 
= 0.337-1.535; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34).
    The Fales breeding complex is located in northern Mono County, 
California. It is composed of three active and three inactive leks. Two 
active leks are located near Sonora Junction, in proximity to the 
intersection of Highway 395 and California Highway 108, and one 
additional lek is located in the northeast corner of Mono County in the 
Sweetwater Mountains. No males have been documented on a previously 
occupied lek since possible activity in 2012 (CDFW 2014a, unpublished 
data; CDFW 2018, unpublished data). In 2018, peak male count on the two 
remaining leks was at a historic low of 16 males total. One of the two 
remaining leks may also potentially be affected by the recent Boot fire 
(2018) and the construction of a new outbuilding approximately 200 
meters (218 yards) away. The most recent results from the IPM suggest 
population growth has been negative over the past decade, but evidence 
of decline is less robust than in other breeding areas, especially when 
considering the longer timeframes. Estimated median population 
abundance in 2018 was 121 (CRI = 54-208; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34) 
individuals. Estimated median lambda from 1995-2018 was 0.999 (CRI = 
0.59-1.641), from 2001-2018 was 0.984 (CRI = 0.539-1.525), and from 
2008-2018 was 0.965 (CRI = 0.544-1.397; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34). 
Overall, the combined Desert Creek and Fales subpopulation has declined 
4.5 percent annually over the past 18 years (Coates et al. 2020, Table 
3).
    Completed, ongoing, and planned conservation measures in this PMU 
include pinyon-juniper removal, fence removal, road closures, livestock 
management (to reduce impacts to critical brood-rearing habitat), 
nonnative invasive plant removal, road closure, fence removal, and 
post-fire restoration (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire).
    (3) The Mount Grant PMU is composed of three connected areas: Two 
high-elevation areas associated with Aurora Peak and the Wassuk Range 
(centered on Mount Grant), and one low-elevation area called Ninemile 
Flat (located in the East Fork Walker River valley) between the two 
high-elevation areas. This PMU is also connected with the Bodie PMU (a 
portion of the sage-grouse population in each PMU moves seasonally to 
the other). Surveys in the Mount Grant PMU have been sporadic due to 
difficulty accessing several locations and survey data collection has 
been influenced by apparent confusion over lek names and potential 
vagaries in lek locations. Woodland succession, and potentially to a 
lesser extent historical and current mining activity, has most 
negatively influenced bird distribution within the Mount Grant PMU (Bi-
State TAC 2012, pp. 36-37). More recently, recreational OHV use has 
become a more prevalent activity under consideration for its influence 
on birds (Service 2020, p. 27).
    The largest known lek in the Mount Grant PMU is located near Aurora 
Peak along the Nevada-California border, and it is generally considered 
the eastern extension of the Bodie PMU breeding complex. The high count 
of 94 males for this lek was recorded in 2006, with a low of 10 in 
2013. Over the past 5 years, peak male counts have ranged between 14 
and 41 individuals (NDOW 2018, unpublished data). Leks in the Wassuk 
Range have not been surveyed consistently due to lack of access, which 
requires aerial survey methods. In 2005 and 2006, a total of 19 and 33 
males, respectively, were counted on five active leks in the Wassuk 
Range (NDOW 2009, unpublished data; Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 35). During 
2012, on four leks surrounding Mount Grant, researchers counted a total 
of 139 birds (males and females) (BSLSP 2012, p. 13). In 2013, 
researchers counted 38 males on 3 leks, the largest of which contained 
30 males, and over the past 4 years, total male counts have ranged 
between 8 and 35 across 3 to 5 leks, with the largest lek containing 23 
males. However, these results are calculated from limited data due to 
access limitations and survey method. The most recent results from the 
IPM suggest population growth in this PMU has generally been stable 
over the past decade, largely mirroring the pattern across the Bi-State 
DPS overall. Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 374 (CRI 
= 205-619; Coates et al. 2020, p. 34) individuals. Estimated median 
lambda from 2008 through 2018 was 0.989 (CRI = 0.551-1.536; Coates et 
al. 2020, p. 34).
    Completed, ongoing, and planned conservation measures in this PMU 
include pinyon-juniper removal, sagebrush restoration, horse gathers 
(roundup and removal of wild horses on public lands), road closures, 
and fence removal (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire).
    (4) The Bodie PMU contains one population (Bodie Hills), which is 
one of the two core (largest) populations for the Bi-State DPS. Most of 
the PMU is located to the east of Highway 395, but a small portion 
extends west of Highway 395 to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Loss of 
historical sage-grouse range in the Bodie PMU has been most influenced 
by woodland succession (The Nature Conservancy 2009, entire; Bi-State 
TAC 2012, p. 30; USGS 2012, unpublished data). Significant stands of 
pinyon pine and to a lesser extent juniper occur at mid to low 
elevations on all flanks of the Bodie Hills as well as across the 
Sierra Nevada Mountains side of the PMU. Perennial water and meadow 
habitats in the Bodie PMU are generally privately owned and provide 
important sage-grouse habitat during the brood-rearing/summer season. 
While natural vegetation succession processes (woodland 
establishment)--in the absence of disturbance--have resulted in loss of 
sagebrush habitat that continues to fragment and isolate the population 
within this PMU, the extent of habitat loss and fragmentation 
attributable to land use change (urban development and agricultural 
conversion) appears minimal.
    Approximately eight leks have been regularly surveyed in the Bodie 
PMU since the late 1980s with some locations being counted as far back 
as the 1950s. Additional active leks and numerous satellite leks (sites 
used sporadically in years of high sage-grouse abundance) have also 
been identified in the Bodie PMU. The majority of leks are located in 
the Bodie Hills east of Highway 395, but at least one long-term lek and 
several associated satellite leks occur west of the Highway. Since 
1953, the long-term average total male attendance in the Bodie PMU is 
192 (Bi-State TAC 2017, p. 11). The minimum count recorded was 64 males 
on 6 leks in 1998, and the maximum was 524 males on 14 leks in 2014.
    The sage-grouse population in the Bodie PMU has no discernible 
long-term trend (Garton et al. 2011, p. 324; referred to as the Mono 
Lake population). The average number of males per active lek declined 
by 41 percent between 1965 and 2007, but since 1991 the minimum number 
of males counted has been trending upward (Garton et al. 2011, p. 324). 
Recent survey years are encouraging because they demonstrate a 
substantial increase in the peaks associated with the population 
fluctuations. These increasing peaks, coupled with the

[[Page 18063]]

general increase in the number of males counted since the early 1990s, 
suggests the Bodie PMU may be moving toward a cycle that oscillates at 
generally higher numbers as compared to the other PMUs. The most recent 
results from the IPM suggest growth in this population has remained 
stable, with evidence of increase. Estimated median population 
abundance in 2018 was 1,521 (CRI = 1,181-1,941; Coates et al. 2020, p. 
34) individuals. Estimated median lambda from 1995 through 2018 was 
1.07 (CRI = 0.76-1.758), from 2001 through 2018 was 1.029 (CRI = 0.74-
1.457), and from 2008 through 2018 was 1.061 (CRI = 0.783-1.471; Coates 
et al. 2020, p. 34). Changes in population from 1995 through 2018 
indicate that sage-grouse numbers as of 2018 were approximately four 
times higher compared to the low point 24 years ago (Coates et al. 
2020, p. 34).
    Completed, ongoing, and planned conservation measures in this PMU 
include pinyon-juniper removal; conservation easements; fence 
modification and removal; road closure; post-fire rehabilitation; and 
sagebrush and brood-rearing habitat restoration (Bi-State TAC 2019, 
entire).
    (5) The South Mono PMU comprises three generally discrete locations 
or breeding complexes: Long Valley, Parker Meadow, and Granite 
Mountain. In the South Mono PMU, sage-grouse were likely historically 
distributed in many of the same areas utilized today (BSLPG 2004, p. 
162), although there has been an estimated reduction in sagebrush 
extent of approximately 13 percent (USGS 2012, unpublished data) due to 
woodland succession. In addition, loss and fragmentation of habitat due 
to other causes (infrastructure, wildfire, and water development) has 
likely altered sage-grouse occurrence in certain locations such as the 
Mono Basin and Adobe Valley. In Long Valley, there may be specific 
locations where distribution has been reduced, but these areas appear 
limited in extent and confined to peripheral locations within the 
breeding complex. Changes in the sage-grouse population size in the 
Parker Meadow and Granite Mountain portions of the PMU are unclear, but 
likely greater. The Granite Mountain and Adobe Valley area (north of 
Highway 120) contains an expanse of sagebrush habitat and has been 
known to support birds during severe winters as well as historically 
(USFS 1966, p. 4; BSLPG 2004, p. 161). However, no consistent use of 
Adobe Valley is currently occurring, and use of the Granite Mountain 
area is limited. This inconsistent use is presumed to be caused by the 
general lack of water and meadow habitat in the area, which has likely 
decreased in the past century. To the east of Adobe Valley in the 
vicinity of Pizona Creek, a potential connectivity corridor exists 
between populations in the South Mono and White Mountains PMUs. 
However, the vegetation within this corridor has apparently changed due 
to woodland succession, and an aerial survey suggests that current 
vegetation is not suitable sage-grouse habitat (BSLSP 2012, p. 36).
    Although surpassed by the Bodie PMU in 2012, traditionally the 
South Mono PMU has had the highest estimated population size as 
compared to the other PMUs within the range of the Bi-State DPS. The 
Long Valley breeding complex includes at least 10 to 12 consistently 
active leks and associated satellite sites located along the upper 
Owens River drainage and the Crowley Lake Basin. The Granite Mountain 
breeding complex includes two inactive leks located in the Adobe Valley 
and two active leks located in the Sagehen Summit area. The Parker 
Meadow breeding complex includes one consistently active lek site 
located south of Parker Creek at the northwest end of the June Lake 
Loop Road. Both the Granite Mountain and Parker Meadow breeding 
complexes are small, with generally less than 10 strutting males per 
complex documented per year.
    Long Valley represents the largest population in the South Mono PMU 
and, in conjunction with the Bodie PMU, these two PMUs represent the 
core populations of the Bi-State DPS. Sage-grouse have been counted in 
the Long Valley breeding complex since the early 1950s. Historical 
maximum male attendance counts occurred in 1962, 1963, 1986, and 2012 
when 408, 405, 406, and 418 male were counted, respectively, on 6-7 
leks (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 44). The long-term average peak male 
attendance between 1953 and 2018 is approximately 200, counted on an 
average of 9 leks. The high count during this period was 418 males in 
2012, and the low count was 130 males in 2019 (CDFW 2019, unpublished 
data). The population in Long Valley has demonstrated positive and 
negative growth rates over the past 40 years (Garton et al. 2011, p. 
329), although fluctuations have been relatively tempered and the 
population trend appears generally stable based on these data. The most 
recent results from the IPM suggest growth in this population has 
declined on average approximately four percent annually over the past 
decade, with more evidence of decrease than increase and apparently 
deviating from the remainder of the DPS. Estimated median population 
abundance in 2018 was 818 (CRI = 614-1,053; Coates et al. 2020, p. 35) 
individuals. Estimated median lambda from 1995 through 2018 was 0.996 
(CRI = 0.676-1.427), from 2001 through 2018 was 0.986 (CRI = 0.655-
1.433), and from 2008 through 2018 was 0.96 (CRI = 0.68-1.361; Coates 
et al. 2020, p. 35).
    Four leks are known to exist in the Granite Mountain breeding 
complex (Adobe, Gaspipe, Big Sand Flat, and Sagehen Summit). Estimated 
median population abundance in 2018 was 20 individuals (CRI = 0-75; 
Coates et al. 2020, Table 1). Estimated median lambda from 1995 through 
2018 was 0.916 (CRI = 0.282-1.964), from 2001 through 2018 was 0.844 
(CRI = 0.18-1.819), and from 2008 through 2018 was 0.834 (CRI = 0.222-
1.658; Coates et al. 2020, Table 3). Sage-grouse have been known to 
occur in the Parker Meadow breeding complex area since the 1950s, 
although lek monitoring did not occur until 2002. One small lek is 
active, and on occasion, satellite sites have experienced strutting 
activity (CDFW 2012, unpublished data). Since 2002, a high count of 18 
males occurred in 2018, and a low count of 3 males occurred in 2010 
(Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 45; CDFW 2018, unpublished data). The most 
recent results from the IPM suggest growth in this population is 
generally stable. Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 48 
(CRI = 21-86; Coates et al. 2020, Table 1) individuals. Estimated 
median lambda from 2001 through 2018 was 0.968 (CRI = 0.254-0.7.16), 
and from 2008 through 2018 was 1.048 (CRI = 0.361-5.814; Coates et al. 
2020, Table 3). While growth in this population has little influence on 
the South Mono PMU as a whole, Parker Meadows likely facilitated 
connectivity between the Bodie and South Mono PMUs historically and 
potentially still does so today.
    In 2017, an experimental translocation program was initiated to 
bolster low numbers in the Parker Meadows population (Mathews et al. 
2018, p. 7). Given its infancy, the efficacy of this program has not 
yet been determined. However, the recent high male lek count in 2018 
(which excluded translocated males) offers some optimism as 
translocations in 2017 improved reproductive success and ultimately 
recruitment in 2018.
    Apart from the translocation, completed, ongoing, and planned 
conservation measures in this PMU include pinyon-juniper removal, land 
acquisition, road closures, landfill removal, and fence modification 
and removal (Bi-State TAC 2019, entire).

[[Page 18064]]

    (6) The White Mountains PMU is the southernmost PMU in the Bi-State 
DPS, encompassing the White Mountains along the border of Nevada and 
California. It extends from the Candelaria Hills and Truman Meadows 
areas in the north to California Highway 168 in the south and from 
California Highway 6 in the west to the Silver Peak Range, Nevada, in 
the east. Historical and current distributions of sage-grouse in the 
White Mountains are not well understood. The area is difficult to 
access and, due to elevation, heavy snow conditions are typical during 
the spring breeding season. In addition, the number, size, and activity 
of leks in the White Mountains are not well known due to infrequent and 
opportunistic surveys. Historical accounts in Esmeralda County, Nevada, 
suggest bird densities there have likely always been low.
    Current impacts such as exurban development (e.g., Chiatovich Creek 
area (BSLSP 2012, p. 38)), grazing, recreation, and invasive species 
may be influencing portions of the population and are likely to 
increase in the future, but current impacts are considered minimal due 
to the remote locations of most known sage-grouse use areas. Potential 
future impacts from infrastructure (power lines, roads) and mineral 
developments could lead to fragmentation of the remote, contiguous 
nature of the habitat if conservation efforts were not conducted.
    There are currently two active leks in the Nevada portion of the 
White Mountains PMU. Both were discovered in 2012 and are relatively 
small with between zero and nine males documented per lek per year 
(NDOW 2018, unpublished data). Since 2016, no males have been detected 
at one of these sites.
    The most recent run of the IPM suggests more evidence of decline 
than increase, although this estimate is derived from fairly limited 
data. Estimated median population abundance in 2018 was 45 (CRI = 9-86; 
Coates et al. 2020, p. Table 1) individuals. Estimated median lambda 
from 2008 through 2018 was 0.85 (CRI = 0.343-1.957; Coates et al. 2020, 
p. Table 3).
    Completed, ongoing, and planned conservation measures in this PMU 
include conservation easements and horse gathers (Bi-State TAC 2019, 
entire).

Regulatory and Analytical Framework

Regulatory Framework

    Section 4 of the Act (16 U.S.C. 1533) and its implementing 
regulations (50 CFR part 424) set forth the procedures for determining 
whether a species is an ``endangered species'' or a ``threatened 
species.'' The Act defines an endangered species as a species that is 
``in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of 
its range,'' and a threatened species as a species that is ``likely to 
become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout 
all or a significant portion of its range.'' The Act requires that we 
determine whether any species is an ``endangered species'' or a 
``threatened species'' because of any of the following factors:
    (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or 
curtailment of its habitat or range;
    (B) Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 
educational purposes;
    (C) Disease or predation;
    (D) The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or
    (E) Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued 
existence.
    These factors represent broad categories of natural or human-caused 
actions or conditions that could have an effect on a species' continued 
existence. In evaluating these actions and conditions, we look for 
those that may have a negative effect on individuals of the species, as 
well as other actions or conditions that may ameliorate any negative 
effects or may have positive effects.
    We use the term ``threat'' to refer in general to actions or 
conditions that are known to or are reasonably likely to negatively 
affect individuals of a species. The term ``threat'' includes actions 
or conditions that have a direct impact on individuals (direct 
impacts), as well as those that affect individuals through alteration 
of their habitat or required resources (stressors). The term ``threat'' 
may encompass--either together or separately--the source of the action 
or condition or the action or condition itself.
    However, the mere identification of any threat(s) does not 
necessarily mean that the species meets the statutory definition of an 
``endangered species'' or a ``threatened species.'' In determining 
whether a species meets either definition, we must evaluate all 
identified threats by considering the expected response by the species, 
and the effects of the threats--in light of those actions and 
conditions that will ameliorate the threats--on an individual, 
population, and species level. We evaluate each threat and its expected 
effects on the species, then analyze the cumulative effect of all of 
the threats on the species as a whole. We also consider the cumulative 
effect of the threats in light of those actions and conditions that 
will have positive effects on the species, such as any existing 
regulatory mechanisms or conservation efforts. The Secretary determines 
whether the species meets the definition of an ``endangered species'' 
or a ``threatened species'' only after conducting this cumulative 
analysis and describing the expected effect on the species now and in 
the foreseeable future.
    Our proposed rule described ``foreseeable future'' as the extent to 
which we can reasonably rely on predictions about the future in making 
determinations about the future conservation status of the species. The 
Service since codified its understanding of foreseeable future in 50 
CFR 424.11(d) (84 FR 45020). In those regulations, we explain the term 
``foreseeable future'' extends only so far into the future as the 
Service can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the 
species' responses to those threats are likely. The Service will 
describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis, using the best 
available data and taking into account considerations such as the 
species' life-history characteristics, threat-projection timeframes, 
and environmental variability. The Service need not identify the 
foreseeable future in terms of a specific period of time. These 
regulations did not significantly modify the Service's interpretation; 
rather they codified a framework that sets forth how the Service will 
determine what constitutes the foreseeable future based on our long-
standing practice. Accordingly, though these regulations do not apply 
to this determination for the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse 
because it was proposed prior to their effective date, they do not 
change the Service's assessment of foreseeable future for the Bi-State 
DPS of greater sage-grouse as contained in our proposed rule and in 
this determination.

Analytical Framework

    The Species Report documents the results of our comprehensive 
biological status review for the species, including an assessment of 
the potential threats to the species. The Species Report does not 
represent a decision by the Service on whether the species should be 
proposed for listing as an endangered or threatened species under the 
Act. It does, however, provide the scientific basis that informs our 
regulatory decisions, which involve the further application of 
standards within the Act and its implementing regulations and policies. 
The following is a summary of

[[Page 18065]]

the key results and conclusions from the Species Report; the full 
report can be found at either Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0106 or Docket 
No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0107 on http://www.regulations.gov.
    In this determination, we used the three conservation biology 
principles of resiliency, redundancy, and representation to assess the 
viability of the Bi-State DPS (Shaffer and Stein 2000, pp. 306-310). 
Briefly, resiliency supports the ability of the species to withstand 
environmental and demographic stochasticity (for example, wet or dry, 
warm or cold years), redundancy supports the ability of the species to 
withstand catastrophic events (for example, droughts, large pollution 
events), and representation supports the ability of the species to 
adapt over time to long-term changes in the environment (for example, 
climate changes). In general, the more resilient and redundant a 
species is and the more representation it has, the more likely it is to 
sustain populations over time, even under changing environmental 
conditions. Using these principles, we will consider the DPS' overall 
response to threats and the DPS' viability as a whole.

Summary of Biological Status and Threats

    In this discussion, we review the biological condition of the 
species and its resources, the influence of those conditions on the 
species' overall viability, and the risks to that viability. Following 
are summary evaluations of 11 threats analyzed in the Species Report 
for the Bi-State DPS: Urbanization and habitat conversion (Factor A); 
infrastructure (Factor A); mining (Factor A); grazing and rangeland 
management (Factor A); nonnative invasive plants and native woodland 
succession (Factor A); wildfires and altered fire regime (Factor A); 
climate change, including drought (Factor A); recreation (Factor E); 
disease (Factor C); predation (Factor C); and small population size and 
population isolation (Factor E). We also evaluate the inadequacy of 
existing regulatory mechanisms (Factor D) on the magnitude of threats. 
Please see the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 39-136) for a more 
detailed discussion of each threat.
    In the Species Report, we also considered four additional threats: 
Renewable energy (Factor A), commercial and recreational hunting 
(Factor B); scientific and educational uses (Factor B); and 
contaminants (including pesticides) (Factor E). We concluded that 
though these threats are currently having some impact on individual 
sage-grouse and their habitat, their overall effect now and into the 
future is expected to be minimal. Therefore, we will not present 
summary analyses of those threats in this document but will consider 
them in our overall conclusions of impacts to the species. For full 
descriptions of all these threats and how they impact the species, 
please see the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 63-124).
    For the purposes of this assessment, we consider the foreseeable 
future to be the amount of time on which we can reasonably determine a 
likely threat's anticipated trajectory and the anticipated response of 
the species to those threats. For some threats impacting the Bi-State 
DPS, we consider the time for which we can reliably project threats and 
the anticipated response to be 30 years. This time period represents 
our best professional judgment of the foreseeable future conditions 
related to climate change, native woodland succession, nonnative 
invasive plants, and wildfire cycles, as well as the Bi-State DPS 
population cycles, probability of population persistence analyzed and 
described by Garton et al. (2015, entire), and regeneration time of 
sagebrush habitat. For other threats and the anticipated species 
response, we can reliably project impacts and the species response for 
less than 30 years, such as infrastructure, urbanization and habitat 
conversion, grazing and rangeland management, recreation, disease, and 
predation.

Urbanization and Habitat Conversion

    Urbanization and habitat conversion (Factor A) have both direct and 
indirect effects on sagebrush habitat. In this section, we will discuss 
direct impacts to sagebrush habitat and to sage grouse populations. 
Indirect effects (such as those associated with infrastructure, 
increases in invasive plant species, and increases in domestic animals 
and wildlife predator species) will be addressed in later sections.
    Traditional land use in the Bi-State area was primarily farming and 
ranching operations. These operations can have both beneficial and 
detrimental effects on sage-grouse conservation. Continuing farming and 
ranching operations have limited development of exurban subdivisions in 
the Bi-State area, but they have also affected the extent of remaining 
sagebrush through conversion to alternate vegetation types (such as 
pasture grass) (Service 2020, p. 35). The extent of impacts from the 
conversion of habitat depends on the amount of sagebrush lost, the type 
of seasonal habitat affected, and the arrangement of habitat lost 
(large blocks or small patches) (Knick et al. 2011, pp. 208-211).
    While conversion of sagebrush vegetation communities to 
agricultural land continues to occur in the Bi-State area, the rate of 
this conversion remains difficult to quantify. Some reports state that 
conversion has lessened and that some of these lands are instead being 
sold and converted to low-density residential housing developments (Bi-
State TAC 2012, pp. 18, 24, 41). Several studies have demonstrated that 
these increases in human population density could have strong effects 
on sage-grouse occupancy beyond the areas directly converted to human 
development. Sage-grouse extirpation was more likely in areas having a 
human population density of at least four people per 1 km\2\ (10 people 
per 1 mi\2\) (Aldridge et al. 2008, pp. 991-992). Increase in human 
populations from this moderate level did not infer a greater likelihood 
of extirpation, likely because much of the additional growth occurred 
in areas no longer suitable for sage-grouse (Aldridge et al. 2008, pp. 
991-992). Additionally, human density is 26 times greater in extirpated 
sage-grouse areas than in the currently occupied range (Wisdom et al. 
2011, p. 463). In modeling several measures of human population on 
greater sage-grouse persistence, including current population density, 
historical population density, and human population growth, the best 
predictor of sage-grouse extirpation was human population density in 
1950 (Aldridge et al. 2008, p. 985). This finding suggests that human 
development has had long-term impacts on habitat suitability and sage-
grouse persistence (Aldridge et al. 2008, pp. 991-992). Thus, even 
small increases in human population density can have a strong effect on 
sage-grouse populations.
    Another indicator of human development pressure on sage-grouse can 
be inferred from existing sagebrush availability. To persist in an 
area, sage-grouse require a minimum of 25 percent sagebrush; a high 
probability of persistence required 65 percent sagebrush or more 
(Aldridge et al. 2008, p. 990; and Chambers et al. 2014, p. 12). When 
data were analyzed in 2014 across the Bi-State, no leks contained less 
than 25 percent sagebrush cover in the immediate area. However, 30 out 
of the 55 leks (55 percent) contained between 25 and 65 percent 
sagebrush cover, suggesting an intermediate probability of persistence 
(Chambers et al. 2014, p. 12). The remaining 25 leks (45 percent)

[[Page 18066]]

contained greater than 65 percent sagebrush cover surrounding a lek 
site.
    Historical and recent alterations, as well as ongoing conversion of 
sagebrush vegetation to support ranching operations and urban/exurban 
expansion, poses the greatest risk to persistence of sage-grouse in the 
Pine Nut, Desert Creek-Fales, and South Mono PMUs and to a lesser 
degree in the Bodie, and White Mountains PMUs (BSLPG 2004, pp. 24-169; 
Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 18-46). Approximately 11 percent of suitable 
sage-grouse habitat in the Bi-State area occurs on private lands. In 
each PMU, sage-grouse home ranges include private lands that are 
critical to fulfilling annual habitat needs (Casazza 2009, p. 9), 
including a significant proportion of mesic areas (e.g., upland 
meadows) within the range of the Bi-State DPS needed by sage-grouse 
during the late brood-rearing period. Sage-grouse are known to display 
strong site fidelity to traditional seasonal habitats, and loss or 
degradation of specific sites (especially brood-rearing habitat) can 
have negative population impacts.
    The majority of local agency land in the South Mono PMU is owned by 
the City of Los Angeles and managed by the Los Angeles Department of 
Water and Power (LADWP). Many of these parcels are irrigated pasture, 
which provide important brood-rearing habitat to upwards 40 percent of 
the entire Bi-State DPS population. The LADWP is considering altering 
the extent to which these lands are irrigated. If realized, this 
potential additive stressor has the potential to negatively affect 
brood-rearing success (an influential demographic vital rate), given 
that the Long Valley population has demonstrated slightly negative 
population growth on average over the past 10 years. To address this 
concern, in 2019 LADWP provided a letter to the Service that reaffirms 
its prior commitment to allocate a sufficient amount of water to 
maintain sage-grouse habitat in Long Valley. Determining the amount of 
water needed to achieve this commitment will be informed by a 
collaborative, science-based approach (LADWP 2019, in litt.). The goal 
of LADWP's natural resource management is to employ Best Management 
Practices for land and water uses that maintain water supplies to the 
City of Los Angeles while protecting water quality, habitat, 
biodiversity, as well as species recognized under the ESA throughout 
the related watersheds. In 2014 (August 18, 2014), LADWP and their 
governing Board of Water and Power Commission approved a Conservation 
Strategy for the Bi-State DPS on their lands in Mono County, 
California. A component of this Strategy included commitments to 
maintain sage-grouse lekking, nesting, and brood rearing habitat. 
Consistent with this Strategy, LADWP has consistently managed the 
activities on their lands such as habitat restoration, livestock 
grazing, recreation, control of noxious and invasive weeds, fire 
suppression, infrastructure, and management of water in a manner that 
is compatible with the conservation of the Bi-State DPS. These past 
efforts and ongoing commitments will continue to provide benefits to 
conservation of the species. The remainder of private lands in the 
South Mono PMU is rangeland, although potential for commercial, 
residential, or recreational development exists.
    Ongoing efforts to develop fee acquisition of properties or enroll 
them into conservation easements may help ameliorate current and 
anticipated effects of urbanization and habitat conversion. We estimate 
that approximately 10,415 ha (25,737 ac) of private land, which may 
provide suitable habitat for sage-grouse in the Bi-State DPS, are 
currently enrolled in various easement programs. The easements are 
targeted primarily at development and water rights and vary in length 
from 30 years to in perpetuity; thus, they can ameliorate the threat of 
development but do not necessarily ensure that habitat remains 
suitable. The majority of these easement lands are located in the Bodie 
PMU, with the remainder of easements occurring in the Desert Creek-
Fales, South Mono, Pine Nut, and White Mountains PMUs. Of the 
approximately 60,326 ha (149,071 ac) of private land that may provide 
suitable habitat for sage-grouse within the Bi-State area, 
approximately 17 percent is under easements. An additional approximate 
9,045 ha (22,352 ac) of previously private land within the Bi-State DPS 
has been acquired by State and Federal agencies over the past decade. 
In total, approximately 19,460 ha (48,089 ac) of land, either through 
conservation easements or acquisitions, has been substantially 
protected from urbanization challenges. These acres represent 
approximately 31 percent of total private lands containing suitable 
sage-grouse habitat across the Bi-State area. In addition, 
approximately 7,280 ha (18,000 ac) of lands identified as important by 
the 2012 BSAP have funding obligated and are working through the 
easement development process, with many of these efforts anticipated to 
be completed in a few years. An effort to acquire approximately 5,867 
ha (14,500 ac) of additional lands in the Pine Nut PMU by the Carson 
City BLM has been approved but will likely not finalize until sometime 
in 2020. Combining the realized and reasonably anticipated efforts, 
approximately 57 percent of high-priority private lands in the Bi-State 
area will be protected.
    Currently, 89 percent of the Bi-State DPS is Federal lands. On 
Federal lands, existing regulatory mechanisms protect sagebrush habitat 
from development. Approximately 54 percent of all lands within the 
sage-grouse Bi-State area is BLM-administered land; this includes 
approximately 1 million ha (2.5 million ac). The Federal Land Policy 
and Management Act of 1976 (43 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) is the primary 
Federal law governing most land uses on BLM lands, and directs 
development and implementation of resource management plans (RMPs) that 
direct management at a local level. The sage-grouse is designated as a 
sensitive species on BLM lands in the Bi-State area (Sell 2010, pers. 
comm.). The BLM's objectives for sensitive species is two-fold: (1) To 
conserve and recover ESA-listed species and the ecosystem on which they 
depend so that ESA protections are no longer needed, and (2) to 
initiate proactive conservation measures that reduce or eliminate 
threats to species to minimize the likelihood of and need for listing 
of these species under the ESA (BLM 2008, p. 3).
    The USFS manages approximately 35 percent of the land in the Bi-
State area or approximately 600,000 ha (1.5 million ac). Management of 
activities on national forest system lands is guided principally by the 
National Forest Management Act (NFMA). The NFMA specifies that the USFS 
must have a land resource management plan (LRMP) (16 U.S.C. 1600) to 
guide and set standards for natural resource management activities on 
each National Forest or National Grassland. The greater sage-grouse is 
designated as a USFS Sensitive Species in the Intermountain (R4) and 
Pacific Southwest (R5) Regions, which includes the Humboldt-Toiyabe 
National Forest (Bridgeport and Carson Ranger Districts) and the Inyo 
National Forest in the Bi-State area. Designated sensitive species 
require special consideration during land use planning and activity 
implementation to ensure the viability of the species on USFS lands and 
to preclude any population declines that could lead to a Federal 
listing (USFS 2008, p. 21). In addition, sensitive species designations 
require analysis for any activity that could have an adverse impact to 
the species, including analysis

[[Page 18067]]

of the significance of any adverse impacts on the species, its habitat, 
and overall population viability (USFS 2008, p. 21). The specific 
protection that sensitive species status confers to sage-grouse on USFS 
lands is largely dependent on LRMPs and site-specific project analysis 
and implementation.
    These regulatory mechanisms prevent urban development on Federal 
lands. Through NFMA, LRMPs, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, 
RMPs, and the On-Shore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act (1987; 
implementing regulations at 36 CFR part 228, subpart E), land-managing 
agencies have the authority to manage, prevent, restrict, or attach 
protective measures to mineral extraction, wind development, and other 
energy permits on Federal lands. Thus, some habitat loss due to these 
developments may still occur on Federal land. Despite this, regulatory 
mechanisms in place are overall reducing the magnitude of threats 
associated with urbanization and habitat conversion.
    Historical and recent conversion of sagebrush habitat on private 
lands for agriculture, housing, and associated infrastructure within 
the Bi-State area has likely negatively affected sage-grouse 
distribution and population extent in the Bi-State DPS, thus 
potentially influencing current and future recovery opportunities in 
the Bi-State area. These alterations to habitat have been most 
pronounced in the Pine Nut and Desert Creek-Fales PMUs and to a lesser 
extent in the Bodie, South Mono, and White Mountains PMUs. Although 
only a subset of the 11 percent of suitable sage-grouse habitat that 
occurs on private lands could potentially be developed, conservation 
actions on adjacent public lands could be compromised due to the 
significant percentage of late brood-rearing habitat that occurs on the 
private lands. Furthermore, the influence of land development and 
habitat conversion on the population dynamics of sage-grouse is greater 
than a simple measure of spatial extent because of the indirect effects 
from the associated increases in human activity. These threats are not 
universal across the Bi-State area, but localized areas of impacts have 
been realized and additional future impacts are anticipated. Currently, 
approximately 31 percent of total private lands containing suitable 
sage-grouse habitat across the Bi-State area are enrolled under an 
easement program or have been acquired by Federal and State agencies, 
and this number will increase to 57 percent when combining additional 
efforts that are ongoing and reasonably likely to occur.
    Urbanization was not considered a significant threat at the time of 
the 2013 proposed listing rule. Currently, the effects of urbanization 
are having a minimal impact on the resiliency of populations within the 
Bi-State DPS. Absent any protections or conservation measures, the 
magnitude of impacts could increase into the foreseeable future as 
unprotected private lands become further fragmented. However, due to 
protections associated with regulatory mechanisms, and in particular 
because of efforts to acquire important private lands associated with 
the BSAP, we conclude that the magnitude of effects associated with 
this threat and its potential impacts on population resiliency should 
not increase to a detrimental level.
    The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter 
effects such as urbanization and habitat loss. Because we have 
determined that the partially completed and future conservation 
measures/efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy for 
Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, 
above), we believe that urbanization and human disturbance is not a 
significant impact on the species within the foreseeable future.

Infrastructure

    We characterize infrastructure as features that assist or are 
required for human development or an associated action. We focus on 
five infrastructure features that are apparent in the Bi-State area and 
that have been implicated in impacting sage-grouse: Three linear 
features (roads, power lines, and fences) and two site-specific 
features (landfills and communication towers).
    Infrastructure can have direct impacts on sage-grouse, such as 
mortality through collision with power lines or fences, or direct 
impacts on sagebrush, such as habitat fragmentation or habitat loss. 
Fragmentation of sagebrush habitat has been cited as a primary cause of 
the decline of sage-grouse populations because the species requires 
large expanses of contiguous sagebrush (Service 2020, p. 45). 
Estimating the impact of habitat fragmentation caused by infrastructure 
on sage-grouse is complicated by the nonrandom placement of these 
features and by time lags in species response to habitat changes 
(Garton et al. 2011, p. 371), particularly since these relatively long-
lived birds continue to return to altered breeding areas (leks, nesting 
areas, and early brood-rearing areas).
    Roads are a linear feature on the landscape that can contribute to 
habitat loss and avoidance of areas close to roads, create barriers to 
migration corridors or seasonal habitats, and increase human 
disturbance in remote areas (Service 2020, p. 46). Additionally, roads 
can provide corridors for predators to move into previously unoccupied 
areas. For some mammalian and avian species (such as common ravens 
(Corvus corax)), dispersal along roads and other linear features like 
power lines has greatly increased their distribution (Forman and 
Alexander 1998, p. 212; Knight and Kawashima 1993, p. 268; Forman 2000, 
p. 33; Connelly et al. 2004, p. 12-3). Road networks also contribute to 
the spread of nonnative invasive plants via introduced road fill, 
vehicle transport, and road maintenance activities (Forman and 
Alexander 1998, p. 210; Forman 2000, p. 32; Gelbard and Belnap 2003, p. 
426; Knick et al. 2003, p. 619; Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7-25). Direct 
mortality of sage-grouse from vehicle collisions does occur (Patterson 
1952, p. 81; Wiechman and Reese 2008, p. 3), but mortalities are 
typically not monitored or recorded. Additionally, roads can have 
impacts on sage-grouse behavior. For example, roads within 7.5 km (4.7 
mi) of leks negatively influence male lek attendance (Service 2020, pp. 
46-47). The mechanism by which road presence reduces male lek 
attendance is not entirely clear, but chronic noise may contribute to 
these decreases. Male sage-grouse rely on acoustical signals to attract 
females to leks (Gibson and Bradbury 1985, p. 82; Gratson 1993, p. 
692). Therefore, if noise interferes with mating displays, and thereby 
female attendance, younger males will not be drawn to the lek and 
eventually leks could become inactive (Amstrup and Phillips 1977, p. 
26; Braun 1986, pp. 229-230).
    In general, locations associated with mineral development (Mount 
Grant PMU), recreational activity (Bodie and South Mono PMUs), and 
major travel corridors (Desert Creek-Fales PMU) have the most 
significant daily road traffic. Our analysis of the best available data 
in the Bi-State area documents that 54 out of 55 known active or 
pending leks are within 3 km (1.8 mi) or less of an existing minor road 
(such as dirt two-track roads). Furthermore, of the 55 known active or 
pending leks, 64 percent (n=35) are within 5 km (3.1 mi) of paved 
secondary highways (Service 2013c, unpublished data).
    An extensive network of roads and trails currently occurs 
throughout the range of the Bi-State DPS. In the Bi-State area, all 
Federal lands have restrictions limiting off-road vehicular travel. In 
addition, road closures and

[[Page 18068]]

rehabilitation of redundant roads by USFS and BLM are occurring to 
benefit Bi-State DPS conservation (Service 2020, p. 49).
    We anticipate limited additional road and trail development will 
occur within suitable and potentially suitable habitat in the Bi-State 
area based on recent land use plan amendments, USFS and BLM travel 
management plans, and our current understanding of travel management 
direction. However, because an extensive road and trail network already 
occurs throughout the Bi-State area and because roads are known to 
result in both direct and indirect impacts to sage-grouse, we 
anticipate some impacts to birds and leks in the future, although we 
are uncertain to what degree these potential impacts will affect 
populations in the Bi-State area.
    Power lines can directly affect sage-grouse by posing collision and 
electrocution hazards (Braun 1998, pp. 145-146; Connelly et al. 2000a, 
p. 974). They can have indirect effects by decreasing lek recruitment, 
increasing predator presence, facilitating the invasion of nonnative 
invasive annual plants by creating soil conditions favorable to their 
spread, potentially acting as a barrier to movement, and ultimately 
negatively affecting population performance (Service 2020, pp. 50-52). 
Due to the potential spread of invasive species and facilitation of 
predator occurrence as a result of power line construction, the 
indirect influence power lines can have on vegetation community 
dynamics and species occurrence often extends out further than the 
physical footprint (Knick et al. 2011, p. 219). Recent research has 
demonstrated that power lines are influencing sage-grouse behavior, 
demographic vital rates, and population growth rates due to associated 
impacts from raven abundance and predation (Gibson et al. 2018, p. 17).
    Power lines occur in all Bi-State PMUs, but the extent of exposure 
varies by location. Based on available data (generally restricted to 
transmission lines), we estimate approximately 210 km (130 mi) of 
existing power lines are present across suitable habitat in the Bi-
State. Overall, approximately 21 percent of 55 active and pending leks 
in the Bi-State area are within 2 km (1.2 mi) or less of existing 
transmission lines and approximately 38 percent of active and pending 
leks are within 5 km (3.1 mi) or less of existing transmission lines 
(Service 2013c, unpublished data). This suggests a potential loss, due 
to sage-grouse avoidance, of approximately 25,200 ha (62,270 ac) of 
otherwise suitable habitat (Gillan et al. 2013, p. 307). These 
transmission lines have the potential to further negatively influence 
over 250,000 ha (617,700 ac) or approximately 47 percent of suitable 
habitat, assuming their presence leads to the increased presence of 
ravens and other predators (Gibson et al. 2018, p. 17). Given that the 
predator community population size likely fluctuates through time, the 
scale of this potential impact will likely vary. Therefore, we are 
uncertain to what degree these potential impacts will affect 
populations in the Bi-State area. Of ongoing concern, however, is the 
potential time lag in effects from construction of power lines, as 
ravens and other predators may not utilize those lines until several 
years after their construction.
    We anticipate that while existing power lines will persist on the 
landscape in the future, new power lines will be limited to smaller 
distribution lines associated with expansion of urbanization on a 
portion of the private lands within and around the Bi-State area. Bi-
State habitat is currently managed as a right-of-way avoidance area by 
Federal land managers, such that larger lines (>120 kilovolts) and 
associated facilities will not be authorized (outside of existing 
corridors; BLM 2016, p. 15; HTNF 2016, p. 13). In the Bodie PMU, one 
decommissioned power line has been removed (Bi-State TAC 2018).
    Fences are used to delineate property boundaries and for livestock 
management (Braun 1998, p. 145; Connelly et al. 2000a, p. 974). The 
effects of fencing on sage-grouse include direct mortality through 
collisions, creation of predator perch sites, and habitat fragmentation 
(Service 2020, p. 55). Fences present a risk to sage-grouse in all Bi-
State PMUs (BSLPG 2004, pp. 54, 80, 120, 124, 169) due to known fence 
collisions and their potential to degrade habitat quality.
    Not all fences present the same direct mortality collision risk to 
sage-grouse. Collision risk factors include fencing design, landscape 
topography, and spatial relationship with seasonal habitats 
(Christiansen 2009, p. 2). Management methods can decrease the impact 
of fences on sage-grouse. Visual markers have been employed in some of 
the high-risk areas to make fences more readily seen by birds; this 
method does appear to substantially reduce mortality due to collisions. 
Markers have been installed on a total of approximately 101 km (63 mi) 
of fence across the Bi-State DPS since 2012. Recent land use plan 
amendments encourage evaluation of existing fences with respect to 
sage-grouse conservation and discourage new installations that may 
negatively affect sage-grouse and its habitat (BLM 2016, pp. 12, 15; 
HTNF 2016, p. 14).
    Data on the total extent (length and distribution) of existing 
fences and new fence construction projects are not available for the 
Bi-State area. However, based on data contained within the Greater 
Sage-grouse Bi-State Distinct Population Segment Forest Plan Amendment 
(USFS and BLM 2014, p. 99), there is likely on the order of 650 km (400 
mi) of existing fences across the entire DPS. While we expect fencing 
to continue and possibly expand in the future within every PMU in the 
Bi-State area, efforts associated with conservation and regulatory 
mechanisms are currently ongoing (and expected to continue into the 
future) to ameliorate some of their impacts (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 5; 
BLM 2016, pp. 12, 15; HTNF 2016, p. 14). While direct mortality through 
collision may be minimized by these approaches, indirect impacts caused 
by predation and other forms of habitat degradation may remain. The 
overall severity of these impacts to the Bi-State DPS throughout its 
range is not known, but based on the best available data the impacts 
are widespread but minor.
    Millions of birds are killed annually in the United States through 
collisions with communication towers (including cellular towers) and 
their associated structures (e.g., guy wires, lights) (Shire et al. 
2000, p. 5; Manville 2002, p. 10), although most documented mortalities 
are of migratory songbirds. In a comparison of sage-grouse locations in 
extirpated areas of their range (as determined by museum species and 
historical observations) and currently occupied habitats, proximity to 
cellular towers had a strong correlation with likelihood of 
extirpation, and the distance to cellular towers was nearly twice as 
far from grouse locations in currently occupied habitats than 
extirpated areas (Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 463). However, there was no 
information as to whether the towers were a factor in the extirpation 
of those areas, or if their presence was linked to other threats in 
those areas (Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 467).
    Within the range of the Bi-State DPS, approximately eight 
communication towers have been constructed in the past decade (Federal 
Communications Commission (FCC) 2018, unpublished data); each PMU has 
at least one such facility located within occupied sage-grouse habitat. 
These eight sites are likely an underrepresentation of the actual 
number of tower sites within the Bi-State area, as tower facilities 
shorter than 61 m (199 ft.) above ground level are not required to 
register with the FCC

[[Page 18069]]

(FCC 2018, unpublished data). We are unable to determine if any sage-
grouse mortalities have occurred as a result of collisions with 
registered or unregistered communication towers or their supporting 
structures, as most towers are not monitored, and those that are 
monitored lie outside the range of the species (Kerlinger 2000, p. 2; 
Shire et al. 2000 p. 19).
    Based on regulatory mechanisms associated with existing land use 
plans as well as existing land designations (wilderness and wilderness 
study areas), which significantly restrict new communication site 
development, we do not expect many new facilities on federally managed 
land in the Bi-State area (BLM 1993, p. 18; BLM 2016, p. 13; HTNF 2016, 
pp. 42-43). However, we anticipate that existing communication towers 
will remain in place and potentially new communication towers will be 
added at existing tower sites. Typically, rights-of-way grants afforded 
these facilities are for 30 years, and would likely be renewed 
indefinitely. It is also probable that new communication towers will be 
developed on non-federally managed lands along existing Federal 
Highways and State Routes. Thus, future communication tower placements 
will most likely affect the Desert Creek-Fales and South Mono PMUs, 
potentially affecting sage-grouse habitat in those locations.
    Municipal solid waste landfills and associated roads contribute to 
increases in synanthropic predators (predator species adapted to 
conditions created or modified by people) (Knight et al. 1993, p. 470; 
Restani et al. 2001, p. 403; Webb et al. 2004, p. 523). One landfill 
exists in the Bi-State area. The Benton Crossing Landfill in Mono 
County is located north of Crowley Lake in Long Valley on a site leased 
from the LADWP. Common ravens and California gulls (Larus californicus) 
heavily use the landfill (Coates 2008, pers. comm.; USGS 2017, p. 17). 
Sage-grouse nest success in Long Valley (South Mono PMU) was lower than 
in other PMUs within the Bi-State area (Kolada et al. 2009b, p. 1344), 
which may be attributable to increased avian predators subsidized by 
landfill operations (Casazza 2008, pers. comm.; USGS 2017, p. 74; 
Coates et al.. 2018, p. 256). At this time, the future closing of the 
landfill appears probable, as LADWP has stated that they do not intend 
to renew the lease and Mono County has been funding planning studies 
for relocation, but any action on relocation is unlikely before the 
lease expires in 2023.
    In the Bi-State area, linear infrastructure impacts each PMU both 
directly and indirectly to varying degrees. Existing roads, power 
lines, and fences may degrade sage-grouse habitat and contribute to 
direct mortality through collisions. In addition, roads, power lines, 
and fences influence sage-grouse use of otherwise suitable habitats 
adjacent to current active areas, increase predators, and increase 
invasive plants. The impact caused by these indirect effects extends 
beyond the immediate timeframe associated with the infrastructure 
installation. Across the entire range of the greater sage-grouse, the 
mean distance to highways and transmission lines for extirpated 
populations was approximately 5 km (3.1 mi) or less (Wisdom et al. 
2011, p. 463). In the Bi-State area, 64 percent of active or pending 
leks are within 5 km (3.1 mi) of highways, and approximately 38 percent 
are within this distance to existing transmission lines (Service 2013c, 
unpublished data). The similarity apparent between these Bi-State DPS 
lek locations and extirpated greater sage-grouse populations suggests 
that persistence may be influenced by their juxtaposition with these 
anthropogenic features.
    The geographic extent, density, type, and frequency of linear 
infrastructure disturbance in the Bi-State area have changed over time. 
While new development of some of these features (highways) will likely 
not occur, other infrastructure features have the potential of 
increasing (secondary roads, power lines, fencing, and communication 
towers). Furthermore, while development of new highways is unlikely, 
road improvements are possible and traffic volume will likely increase, 
and in certain areas these actions may be more important than road 
development itself.
    We concluded in the 2013 proposed listing rule that infrastructure 
impacts (particularly fencing, power lines, and roads) were a 
significant factor for proposing to list the DPS as a threatened 
species, and today, we affirm that impacts from infrastructure occur in 
various forms throughout the Bi-State DPS's range and are an ongoing 
threat impacting population resiliency across its range and degrading 
habitat both currently and into the future. This conclusion is based on 
a variety of range-wide impacts that are currently occurring and 
expected to continue or increase in the future that result in habitat 
fragmentation; limitations for sage-grouse recovery actions due to an 
extensive road network, power lines, and fencing; and a variety of 
direct and indirect impacts such as direct loss of individuals from 
collisions or structures that promote increased potential for 
predation. Collectively, these threats may result in perturbations that 
influence both demographic vital rates of sage-grouse (e.g., 
reproductive success and adult sage-grouse survival) and habitat 
suitability in the Bi-State area.
    Importantly, conservation efforts that address infrastructure 
impacts have continued to be implemented since publication of the 
proposed listing rule, including (but not limited to): Removing power 
lines; implementing both permanent and seasonal road closures; removing 
racetrack fencing; and the likely relocation of the landfill in Long 
Valley. With continued implementation of conservation actions 
associated with the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), infrastructure-
related impacts are significantly reduced.
    The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter 
negative effects from infrastructure. Because we have determined that 
the partially completed and future conservation efforts will be 
implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation 
Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe that effects 
associated with infrastructure may no longer be considered a 
significant impact into the future.

Mining

    Surface and subsurface mining for mineral resources (gold, silver, 
aggregate, and others) can result in direct loss of sagebrush habitat. 
Construction of mining infrastructure can result in additional direct 
loss of habitat from establishment of structures, staging areas, roads, 
railroad tracks, and power lines. Sage-grouse and their nests could be 
directly affected by crushing or vehicle collision. Sage-grouse also 
can be impacted indirectly from an increase in human presence, land use 
practices, ground shock, noise, dust, reduced air quality, degradation 
of water quality and quantity, and changes in vegetation and topography 
(Moore and Mills 1977, entire). However, whereas theoretical effects 
are relatively clear and logical, information relating sage-grouse 
response to mineral developments is not extensive.
    Mineral development is classified as leasable (fluid) minerals (in 
the Bi-State area, this is limited to geothermal resource), saleable 
minerals (sand and gravel pits), and locatable minerals (precious 
metals). Through existing regulatory mechanisms, Federal managers have 
discretion to condition or deny proponents of leasable or saleable 
mineral projects, and existing

[[Page 18070]]

land use management plans have provisions that significantly restrict 
the likelihood of these developments (BLM 1993, p. 18; BLM 2016, pp. 
12-13; HTNF 2016, pp. 19-21). Locatable minerals are administered under 
the General Mining Act of 1872. Federal land managers have very limited 
ability to prevent or preclude these activities from occurring.
    Mineral extraction has a long history throughout the Bi-State area. 
Mining continues today to a limited extent in all PMUs and is expected 
to continue into the future. Although mining occurs year-round in the 
Bi-State DPS, direct loss of key seasonal habitats or population 
disturbances during critical seasonal periods are of greatest impact. 
Currently, the PMUs with the greatest exposure are Bodie, Mount Grant, 
Pine Nut, and to a lesser degree South Mono (BSLPG 2004, pp. 89, 137, 
178). There are currently several active Plans of Operations that 
overlap Bi-State sage-grouse habitat and thousands of active mining 
claims on Federal, State, and private lands. There is potential for 
additional mineral developments to occur in the Bi-State area in the 
future. While all PMUs have the potential for mineral development, 
based on current land designations and past activity, it appears the 
Pine Nut and Mount Grant PMUs are most likely to experience new 
activity (Service 2020, pp. 61-63). Currently operational mines are not 
within the core population areas of the Bi-State DPS, although existing 
inactive mining sites, exploration actions, and potential future 
developments could impact important lek complexes and population 
connectivity.
    In general, potential exists for mining operations to expand both 
currently and into the future, but the scope of impacts from existing 
mining expansion is not considered extensive. We concluded in the 2013 
proposed listing rule and reaffirm here that, by itself, mining is not 
currently considered a significant impact to the Bi-State population, 
though mining exploration continues, and mining activity could occur at 
any time in the future.
    Conservation efforts that address the impacts from mining have 
continued to be implemented since publication of the proposed listing 
rule, such as reducing human-related disturbances (e.g., road noise/
traffic). The BSAP includes conservation actions targeting development 
and human disturbances that will reduce the minor or potential impacts 
from mining (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire). Because we have determined 
that the partially completed and future conservation efforts will be 
implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation 
Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe impacts 
associated with mining in the Bi-State population area are not a 
reasonably anticipated concern into the future.

Grazing and Rangeland Management

    Livestock grazing continues to be the most widespread land use 
across the sagebrush biome (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7-29; Knick et al. 
2003, p. 616; Knick et al. 2011, p. 219), including within the Bi-State 
area. Links between grazing practices and population levels of sage-
grouse are still not well defined (Braun 1987, p. 137; Connelly and 
Braun 1997, p. 231). Depending on timing and intensity, grazing can 
have both positive and negative impacts to greater sage-grouse 
populations. Sage-grouse populations responded favorably to higher 
grazing levels after peak vegetative productivity, but declined when 
grazed earlier (Monroe et al. 2017, p. 1102). Livestock grazing can 
reduce the available food sources needed during breeding and brood-
rearing periods (Braun 1987, p. 137; Dobkin 1995, p. 18; Connelly and 
Braun 1997, p. 231; Beck and Mitchell 2000, pp. 998-1000). But while 
some studies have reported grass height as important for sage-grouse 
nesting habitat, others have reported weak or no effects, and other 
studies concluded no influential effects of grass-related variables on 
nesting success (Service 2020, pp. 65-66). In the Bi-State area, 
studies have suggested that grazing, or more importantly maintenance of 
residual grass cover, may not influence nest success in the Bi-State 
area as much as in other regions (Kolada et al. 2009b, pp. 1343-1344; 
Coates et al. 2017a, p. 55). This may be because the most prevalent 
nest predator in the Bi-State area, the common raven, is potentially 
less influenced by grass cover than mammalian predators (Coates et al. 
2008, entire). Studies suggest that a threshold may exist whereby 
grazing can occur without detriment to sage-grouse resources. We note, 
however, the specifics of this threshold remain uncertain (Service 
2020, p. 66).
    Potential negative effects of livestock grazing on the sagebrush 
ecosystem include reduced water infiltration rates, reduced cover of 
herbaceous plants and litter, compacted soils, and increased soil 
erosion (Braun 1998, p. 147; Dobkin et al. 1998, p. 213). These impacts 
change the proportions of shrubs, grasses, and forbs in affected areas, 
and increase the propensity for invasion by nonnative invasive plant 
species (Service 2020, p. 67). Additionally, as far back as the mid-
1900s, livestock grazing has been implicated in facilitating the spread 
of cheatgrass (Leopold 1949, p. 165; Billings 1951, p. 112). Livestock 
grazing reduces invasion resistance by imposing a competitive 
disadvantage on native herbaceous understory species and altering soil 
properties (Reisner et al. 2013, p. 10). While livestock grazing has 
been used strategically in sage-grouse habitat to control some invasive 
weeds (Merritt et al. 2001, p. 4; Olsen and Wallander 2001, p. 30; 
Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7-49) and woody plant encroachment (Riggs and 
Urness 1989, p. 358), there is limited evidence that controlling 
established cheatgrass through grazing is feasible. Rest from grazing 
may, in fact, be a more effective strategy of building resistance to 
invasion into a site (Reisner et al. 2013, p. 10). Collectively, these 
studies suggest managed livestock grazing at moderate intensities in 
the Bi-State area may be benign or even beneficial to some seasonal 
sage-grouse habitats, but when grazing intensity exceeds this moderate 
use level, livestock grazing can have negative effects on sage-grouse 
habitat and individuals (Boyd et al. 2014, p. 60).
    Historically, extensive rangeland management has been conducted by 
Federal agencies and private landowners to reduce shrub cover and 
improve forage conditions for livestock in the sagebrush-steppe 
ecosystem (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7-28; Knick et al. 2011, p. 220; 
Pyke 2011, p. 534). Today, ongoing removal or control of sagebrush in 
the Bi-State area is limited. The BLM and USFS have stated that, with 
rare exceptions, they no longer convert sagebrush to other habitat 
types, and that future treatments shall maintain, improve, or restore 
Bi-State sage-grouse habitat (BLM 2016, p. 11; HTNF 2016, p. 16). 
Federal land managers currently focus on improving the diversity of the 
native plant community, reducing conifer encroachment, or reducing the 
risk of large wildfires. On private lands in the Bi-State area, our 
understanding of sagebrush treatments is limited. Known instances of 
the elimination of sagebrush by chemical and mechanical means are 
apparent, but their extent remains to be quantified. The ability to 
restore or rehabilitate overgrazed areas depends on the condition of 
the area relative to its site potential (Knick et al. 2011, p. 232). 
Active restoration is required where the native understory is reduced 
(Pyke 2011, p. 539). If an area has soil loss or invasive species, 
returning the native plant community may be impossible (Daubenmire 
1970,

[[Page 18071]]

p. 82; Knick et al. 2011, p. 232; Pyke 2011, p. 539).
    Infrastructure related to livestock management such as water 
developments (e.g., springs, tanks, guzzlers) and fences in shrub-
steppe habitats are common on public lands (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7-
35). Development of springs and other water sources can artificially 
concentrate domestic livestock and wild ungulates in mesic areas, 
thereby exacerbating grazing and trampling impacts to sage-grouse 
nesting and brood-rearing areas (Braun 1998, p. 147; Knick et al. 2011, 
p. 230). Diverting water sources can result in the loss of riparian or 
wet meadow habitat that sage-grouse depend upon as sources of forbs and 
insects. However, water developments can also be beneficial to 
sagebrush vegetation communities, as this practice can help distribute 
livestock to water troughs and away from riparian areas, minimizing 
concentrated impacts of livestock grazing.
    In the Bi-State area, there are 149 grazing allotments identified 
across all PMUs. Of these, 122 are considered active allotments, 
encompassing approximately 73 percent of suitable sage-grouse habitat. 
Most grazed lands are managed by the BLM and USFS, although much of the 
meadow habitats are located on private lands (BSLPG 2004, entire). 
Several rangeland health assessments (RHAs) or their equivalent have 
been completed on 120 allotments (104 that are active) and have not 
been conducted on the remaining 29 allotments (18 that are active). 
While there are public allotments or portions of allotments exhibiting 
adverse impacts from current or historical livestock grazing (e.g., 
vegetation condition or composition is generally less than desired), 
our understanding is the majority of allotments in the Bi-State area 
are in good condition (Axtell 2008, pers. comm.; Murphy 2008, pers. 
comm.; Nelson 2008, pers. comm. BLM 2014b, in litt.; Bi-State TAC 2017, 
pp. 31-33), and livestock grazing is generally thought to have a 
limited impact on sage-grouse habitat (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire). 
Livestock grazing will continue into the indefinite future within the 
Bi-State area at its current or slightly decreased level, and thus 
remain a discretionary action where Federal agencies have the ability 
to alter use when renewing grazing permits. Also, it appears that 
Federal land managers are moving in a direction that affords greater 
discretion to sage-grouse habitat needs when evaluating livestock 
management and the majority of allotments have or will have pending 
renewals and associated terms and conditions that consider sage-grouse 
habitat, including the establishment or placement of infrastructure 
(Nelson 2008, pers. comm.; BLM 2016, pp. 11-12; HTNF 2016, pp. 16-18).
    In addition to domestic livestock, feral horses can negatively 
impact meadows and brood-rearing habitats used by sage-grouse, and 
these impacts can be more severe given horses cannot be managed on a 
seasonal basis (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7-37; Crawford et al. 2004, p. 
11). Horse presence may negatively affect sagebrush vegetation 
communities and habitat suitability for sage-grouse by decreasing grass 
cover, fragmenting shrub canopies, altering soil characteristics, 
decreasing plant diversity, and increasing the abundance of invasive 
cheatgrass. In areas utilized by both horses and cattle, it is unknown 
whether grazing impacts are synergistic or additive (Beever and 
Aldridge 2011, p. 286). The most substantial impacts from feral horses 
in the Bi-State area occur in the Pine Nut, Mount Grant, and White 
Mountains PMUs (Axtell 2008, pers. comm.; Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 19, 
37, 41), although they are also known to occur within the Bodie and 
South Mono PMUs. We are unaware of the specific severity and scope of 
impacts caused by feral horses on the Bi-State DPS and sage-grouse 
habitat, although localized areas of concern in all PMUs are apparent. 
Most important are probable impacts to mesic areas within the Pine Nut, 
Mount Grant, and White Mountains PMUs. Management of herd size by 
Federal agencies is an ongoing challenge as horse management is 
expensive and often controversial. Based on this understanding, we 
anticipate future impacts caused by wild horses to increase, especially 
as horse herds are growing by 20 percent annually. However, despite 
this increase, the threat will have a minor impact on sagebrush 
habitat.
    Existing regulatory mechanisms such as BLM land management plans 
and USFS LRMPs further reduce the magnitude of threats associated with 
grazing and rangeland management. For example, the Central California 
Standards and Guidelines of the Bishop RMP provide additional direction 
for the management of permitted livestock grazing on public lands 
administered by the Bishop Field Office. Standards are set for soil, 
species, riparian, and water quality, and metrics by which the 
achievement of these standards could be measured were established. This 
enables BLM to manage livestock grazing to ensure that species such as 
sage-grouse are ``healthy and in numbers that appear to ensure stable 
to increasing populations; habitat areas are large enough to support 
viable populations or are connected adequately with other similar 
habitat areas.'' Additionally, the Carson City District Land Use Plan 
Amendment for the Nevada and California Greater Sage-grouse Bi-State 
Distinct Population Segment addresses conservation of the Bi-State area 
by providing specific direction to management of the DPS and its 
habitat, including grazing management and wild horse and burro 
management (BLM 2016, entire). Numerous land use allocations restrict 
or substantially limit new habitat and bird disturbances and identify 
Best Management Practices to further minimize allowable actions. For 
more details on plans that address the impacts of grazing and rangeland 
management, see the Existing Regulatory Mechanisms of the Species 
Report (Service 2020, pp. 124-136).
    Analyzing the overall impacts of grazing is difficult, as there is 
little direct evidence linking grazing effects and sage-grouse 
population responses. Analyses for grazing impacts at landscape scales 
important to sage-grouse are confounded by the fact that almost all 
sage-grouse habitat has at one time been grazed and thus no ungrazed 
control areas exist for comparisons (Knick et al. 2011, p. 232). 
Overall, impacts from historic grazing and current rangeland management 
occur within localized areas throughout the Bi-State DPS's range, 
though it is more pronounced in some PMUs than others. Domestic 
livestock and feral horses have the potential to negatively affect 
sage-grouse habitats by decreasing grass cover, fragmenting shrub 
canopies, altering soil characteristics, decreasing plant diversity, 
and increasing the abundance of invasive plant species, although their 
impacts and management potential can differ. Grazing and domestic 
livestock management has the potential to result in sage-grouse habitat 
degradation, though there is some conflicting information on whether 
some of the impacts of grazing are positive or negative. The Pine Nut 
and Mount Grant PMUs may be most sensitive to impacts from grazing as 
both PMUs are generally lower in elevation and receive less 
precipitation, making their sagebrush habitat less resistant to 
withstanding changes. Across the remainder of the PMUs, localized areas 
of meadow degradation are apparent, and these conditions may influence 
sage-grouse populations, as meadows are essential for recruitment of 
young.
    Overall, impacts from past grazing and rangeland management occur 
within localized areas in all PMUs,

[[Page 18072]]

although impacts are more pronounced in some PMUs than others. We 
concluded in the 2013 proposed listing rule that grazing and rangeland 
management was a factor (albeit not significant) for proposing to list 
the DPS as a threatened species as a result of ongoing habitat 
degradation impacts that may affect sage-grouse habitat in the Bi-State 
area, resulting in an overall reduction in aspects of habitat quality 
(e.g., fragmentation, lack of understory plants, increased presence of 
nonnative plant species), especially in the Pine Nut and Mount Grant 
PMUs. While we recognize that livestock and feral horses may negatively 
impact sage-grouse habitat, we affirm that it does not appear that this 
is a significant concern in the Bi-State area today.
    Importantly, conservation efforts that address the impacts from 
grazing and rangeland management have continued to be implemented since 
publication of the proposed listing rule, including (but not limited 
to): (1) Completing drafts and beginning to implement the new BLM and 
USFS Land Use Plan amendments (U.S. Department of the Interior and USDA 
2015, entire), which are a considerable improvement for conservation of 
the Bi-State DPS and its habitat; repairing watering facilities, 
irrigation structures, and fencing around natural riparian areas to 
control grazing activity; increasing monitoring and management of horse 
and burrow herds; and restoring meadow/riparian habitat in critical 
brood-rearing habitat areas. With continued implementation of 
conservation actions associated with the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, 
entire), impacts from grazing and rangeland management are 
significantly reduced.
    The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter 
effects such as livestock and wild horse grazing. Because we have 
determined that the partially completed and future conservation efforts 
will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of 
Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe 
impacts associated with grazing and rangeland management are not a 
concern now or in the foreseeable future.

Nonnative Invasive Plants and Native Woodland Succession

    Shifting vegetation communities within the Bi-State area are 
altering sagebrush habitat that supports sage-grouse. Nonnative 
invasive plants such as cheatgrass alter sagebrush community structure, 
composition, productivity, nutrient cycling, and hydrology (Vitousek 
1990, p. 7). Nonnative plants may also cause declines in native plant 
populations through mechanisms such as competitive exclusion and niche 
displacement (Mooney and Cleland 2001, p. 5446). They can create long-
term changes in ecosystem processes, such as altering fire cycles and 
other disturbance regimes; these changes can persist even after an 
invasive plant is removed (Zouhar et al. 2008, p. 33).
    Nonnative plants degrade existing sage-grouse habitat, replacing 
vegetation essential to sage-grouse for food and cover (Connelly et al. 
2000a, pp. 971-972; Miller et al. 2011, pp. 160-164). The presence of 
cheatgrass influences lek persistence, nest site selection, and 
ultimately population performance (Blomberg et al. 2012, p. 7; Knick et 
al. 2013, p. 1544; Lockyer et al. 2015, p. 791; Coates et al. 2016b, p. 
12747). Nonnative plants affect sage-grouse habitat and population 
demographics both in the short term (e.g., nest site selection, loss of 
forbs and associated insects) and in the long term (e.g., population 
growth, sagebrush displacement and habitat fragmentation).
    A variety of nonnative invasive plants are present within the Bi-
State area, although cheatgrass is of greatest concern. Local managers 
and scientists consider cheatgrass to be a low-level threat across four 
PMUs (White Mountains, South Mono, Bodie, and Desert Creek-Fales), a 
moderate threat in the Mount Grant PMU, and a high threat in the Pine 
Nut PMU (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 19, 26, 32, 37, 41, 49). Areas of 
greatest concern are in the Pine Nut PMU where cheatgrass abundance is 
greatest and where there are restoration challenges following several 
recent wildfires. Averaged across the entire Bi-State, percent cover of 
cheatgrass is generally low (Peterson 2003, entire), and conversion to 
an annual grass dominated community is currently limited to only a few 
locations. Anecdotal reports suggest this assessment remains generally 
true, though it is apparent that the abundance and distribution of 
cheatgrass has increased over the past decade.
    Efforts are ongoing to restore or rehabilitate sage-grouse habitat 
affected by nonnative plant species, but the techniques for 
accomplishing these efforts remain mostly unproven, experimental, and 
often logistically difficult (Pyke 2011, pp. 543-544). Regardless, 
restoration efforts such as localized weed treatments have been applied 
within all the Bi-State PMUs.
    Based on our understanding and past experience with nonnative 
invasive species in the Great Basin Region, we anticipate that impacts 
from nonnative species will continue or increase into the future. 
According to a mapping of sagebrush habitats across the range of 
greater sage-grouse that categorized these habitats based on their 
resistance and resilience to disturbance, both resistance and 
resilience are low in the warm and dry sagebrush habitats contained 
within the Nevada portion of the Bi-State (Pine Nut, Mount Grant, and 
Desert Creek portion of the Desert Creek-Fales PMUs) and most of the 
South Mono PMU (Chambers et al. 2014, pp. 16-17). That is, these areas 
have lower productivity and higher susceptibility to cheatgrass or 
other invasive annual grass incursion and will therefore face greater 
restoration challenges should fire occur. In the wetter and cooler 
sagebrush habitats found in the White Mountains, Bodie, Fales portion 
of the Desert Creek--Fales PMUs, and high-elevation sites of the Mount 
Grant PMU, resilience and resistance were ranked as moderately high to 
high, implying these locations have greater productivity and are 
generally less suitable to invasive annual grass establishment 
(Chambers et al. 2014, p. 43).
    In addition to nonnative plant invasions within sagebrush habitat, 
some native tree species are increasing in sagebrush habitat and 
impacting the suitability of the habitat for the various life processes 
of the sage-grouse. Pinyon-juniper woodlands are a native vegetation 
community that can encroach upon, infill, and eventually replace 
sagebrush habitat. The cause of this conversion from shrubland to 
woodland is debatable but may be due to a suite of causes acting in 
concert with active wildfire suppression including: Domestic livestock 
grazing (reduced competition from native grasses and forbs and 
facilitation of tree regeneration by increased shrub cover and enhanced 
seed dispersal), climatic fluctuations favorable to tree regeneration, 
enhanced tree growth due to increased water use efficiency associated 
with carbon dioxide fertilization, and recovery from past disturbance 
(natural and anthropogenic) (Miller et al. 2008, p. 10; Baker 2011, p. 
200; Miller et al. 2011, pp. 167-169; Bukowski and Baker 2013, p. 560). 
Each of these factors have likely influenced the current pattern of 
vegetation in the Bi-State area today and have led to an estimated 40 
percent decline in sagebrush extent due to woodland succession and 
isolation of sage-grouse populations across the DPS.
    Land managers in the Bi-State area consider pinyon-juniper 
encroachment a substantial threat to sage-grouse because it impacts 
habitat quality, quantity, and connectivity, and

[[Page 18073]]

increases the risk of avian predation to sage-grouse populations (BSLPG 
2004, pp. 20, 39, 96; Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 18-47). Previously 
occupied sage-grouse locations throughout the Bi-State area are thought 
to have been abandoned due to woodland succession (Bi-State TAC 2012, 
pp. 18-47). The extent of the conversion to pinyon-juniper woodland 
varies by PMU, with the South Mono PMU being the least impacted 
(approximately 13 percent loss) and the Pine Nut PMU being the most 
influenced (approximately 50 percent loss). The remainder of the PMUs 
(White Mountains, Mount Grant, Desert Creek-Fales, and Bodie) are each 
estimated to have experienced approximately a 40 percent loss of 
historical sagebrush vegetation to woodland succession. In total, over 
the past 150 years, an estimated 390,000 ha (963,000 ac) of sagebrush 
habitat has converted to woodland vegetation, resulting in a loss of 
availability of total sagebrush habitat in the Bi-State area (which is 
not synonymous with suitable sage-grouse habitat as presented in Table 
1) from slightly over 1,000,000 ha (2,580,000 ac) in 1850 to 
approximately 650,000 ha (1,600,000 ac) today across the Bi-State DPS 
(USGS 2012, unpublished data).
    In order to counter the impact of pinyon-juniper encroachment, 
treatments to thin or remove woodland species are ongoing. Recent 
research supports previous assertions that these treatments would 
expand sage-grouse habitat and ultimately be used successfully by birds 
(Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63; Severson et al. 2017, p. 53; Olsen 2019, 
pp. 21-22). Sage-grouse response to woodland encroachment has been 
negative to the incursion but in some instances responsive to treatment 
actions. Sage-grouse encountering pinyon-juniper communities coupled 
with the rate of movement through these communities negatively affected 
bird survival (Prochazka et al. 2017, p. 46); however, sage-grouse 
readily nested in conifer treatment sites after trees had been removed 
(Severson et al. 2017, p. 53). Woodland treatments increased suitable 
available breeding habitat and enhanced nest and brood success 
(Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63). Sage-grouse avoided pinyon-juniper 
communities across varying degrees of community dominance; this 
avoidance increased survival (Coates et al. 2017b, pp. 31-33). Removal 
of pinyon-juniper trees encroaching into sagebrush vegetation 
communities can increase sage-grouse population growth through 
improving juvenile, yearling, and adult survival as well as improving 
nest survival (Olsen 2019, pp. 21-22). This research found population 
growth was 11.2 percent higher in treatment than in control sites 
within 5 years of conifer removal. Therefore, woodland encroachment 
into occupied sage-grouse habitat reduces, and likely eventually 
eliminates, sage-grouse occupancy. However, treatment action to remove 
trees increases sagebrush habitat, and these habitats are used 
successfully by sage-grouse.
    Prior to the development of the BSAP in 2012, approximately 18 
woodland thinning or removal projects had been undertaken, removing 
approximately 5,454 ha (13,479 ac) of woodland (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 
5). Since this time, an additional 81 projects have been initiated, 
treating approximately 18,798 ha (46,450 ac). While it is premature to 
detect a population-level response of sage-grouse to these treatments 
in the Bi-State region, increases in occupied habitat and increases in 
nest and brood success as well as survival parameters are anticipated 
based on recent research finding a positive overall outcome for 
population performance and connectivity (Coates et al. 2017b, pp. 31-
33; Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63; Severson et al. 2017, p. 53; Olsen 
2019, pp. 21-22). Furthermore, preliminary analysis of marked birds in 
the Bi-State area demonstrates grouse use of these treatments and 
offers support for these research findings (Mathews et al. 2018, pp. 
33-34). Implementation and planning of additional woodland treatment 
projects are also under way over the next several years covering tens 
of thousands of acres.
    Using the best available data, we estimate that the current acres 
of conifer removal treatments is within the range of estimated acres of 
woodland expansion and, further, that these treatments will continue 
based on ongoing commitments provided by land managers to implement the 
BSAP.
    Overall, we consider woodland succession to pose a substantial 
threat to the Bi-State DPS. However, we consider impacts from woodland 
succession to be reduced by conservation measures with a high degree of 
implementation and effectiveness, recognizing that restoring historical 
connectivity and preventing further loss of suitable habitat requires 
continued focused active management.
    Both nonnative invasive plants and native woodland succession are 
impacting the sage-grouse and its habitat in the Bi-State area. In 
general, nonnative plants are not abundant throughout the Bi-State 
area, with the exception of cheatgrass that occurs in all PMUs and is 
most extensive and of greatest concern in the Pine Nut PMU. Cheatgrass 
is a nonnative annual species that will likely continue to expand 
throughout the Bi-State region in the future and increase the adverse 
impact that currently exists to sagebrush habitats and sage-grouse 
through outcompeting beneficial understory plant species and altering 
the fire ecology of the area. Land managers have had limited success 
preventing cheatgrass invasion in the West, and elevational barriers to 
occurrence are becoming less restrictive. The best available data 
suggest that future conditions that could promote expansion of 
cheatgrass will be most influenced by precipitation and winter 
temperatures (Bradley 2009, p. 200). Cheatgrass is a serious challenge 
to the sagebrush shrub community, and its spread will be detrimental to 
sage-grouse in the Bi-State area. In addition, the encroachment of 
native woodlands (particularly pinyon-juniper) into sagebrush habitats 
continues to occur throughout the Bi-State area. Currently, however, 
treatment actions are on par with the expansion rate.
    Overall, invasive nonnative and native plants occur throughout the 
entire Bi-State DPS's range. We concluded in the proposed listing rule 
that their spread was a significant factor for proposing to list the 
DPS as a threatened species based on the extensive amount of pinyon-
juniper encroachment and cheatgrass invasion that is occurring 
throughout the DPS's range, and the interacting impact these invasions 
have on habitat quality (e.g., reduces foraging habitat, increases 
likelihood of wildfire) and habitat fragmentation. Today, we affirm 
that nonnative and native invasive species occur throughout the Bi-
State DPS's range and are significant threats to the species both 
currently and in the future. We expect this threat will increase across 
the range into the future unless it is actively managed.
    Several regulatory mechanisms identified in existing federal land 
use plans address the impact of nonnative invasive plants and native 
woodland succession, the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes 
measures to counter the effects of these threats. In the past few 
years, we have gained increased certainty about the effectiveness of 
removal efforts for pinyon-juniper woodland. Because we have determined 
that the partially completed and future conservation efforts will be 
implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation 
Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), the threat of native 
woodland succession is being reduced, though it is still impacting

[[Page 18074]]

sagebrush habitat throughout the DPS. Conservation measures are less 
effective at controlling and ameliorating the effects of nonnative 
invasive plants, and thus they will continue to affect sagebrush 
habitat into the foreseeable future.

Wildfires and Altered Fire Regime

    Wildfire is the principal disturbance mechanism affecting sagebrush 
communities. The nature of historical fire patterns, particularly in 
big sagebrush, is not well understood; however, it was historically 
infrequent (Miller and Eddleman 2000, p. 16; Zouhar et al. 2008, p. 
154; Baker 2011, pp. 189, 196). Most sagebrush species have not 
developed evolutionary adaptations such as re-sprouting and heat-
stimulated seed germination found in other shrub-dominated systems, 
such as chaparral, that are exposed to relatively frequent fire events. 
Natural fire regimes and landscapes were shaped by a few infrequent 
large fire events; historical fire rotation was 50-200 years in 
mountain big sagebrush communities and 200-350 years in Wyoming big 
sagebrush communities (Baker 2011, p. 196; Bukowski and Baker 2013, pp. 
556-558). In general, fire extensively reduces sagebrush within burned 
areas, and big sagebrush varieties, the most widespread species of 
sagebrush, can take decades to reestablish and even longer to return to 
pre-burn conditions (Service 2020, p. 79). While no specific studies 
have been conducted within the Bi-State area to inform our knowledge of 
fire rotation, we expect the pattern in Wyoming big sagebrush and 
mountain big sagebrush communities in the Bi-state area to be similar 
to those described above for the remainder of the species' range.
    Both increases and decreases in the natural fire regime can have 
detrimental effects on sagebrush. When intervals between wildfire 
events become unnaturally long, woodlands can encroach into sagebrush 
communities as the prolonged interval between fires allows seedlings to 
establish and trees to mature (Miller et al. 2011, p. 167). Currently, 
active wildfire suppression continues to occur throughout the Bi-State 
DPS.
    Conversely, the invasion and establishment of nonnative invasive 
annual grasses, such as cheatgrass and medusahead rye (Taeniatherum 
caput-medusae) can increase wildfire frequency within sagebrush 
ecosystems and negatively influence the likelihood of recovery (Zouhar 
et al. 2008, p. 41; Miller et al. 2011, p. 167; Balch et al. 2013, p. 
178). Cheatgrass shortens historical fire patterns by providing an 
abundant and easily ignitable fuel source that facilitates fire spread 
and recovers within 1-2 years of a wildfire event, leading to a 
recurring wildfire cycle that prevents sagebrush reestablishment (Young 
and Evans 1978, p. 285; Eiswerth et al. 2009, p. 1324; Balch et al. 
2013, pp. 180-181). It is difficult and usually ineffective to restore 
sagebrush after annual grasses become established due to the positive 
feedback with fire, invasive species seed bank establishment, and 
alterations to soil and hydrologic processes (Paysen et al. 2000, p. 
154; Connelly et al. 2004, pp. 7-44-7-50; Pyke 2011, p. 539).
    Fire can have direct impacts on sage-grouse and their habitat. If 
fire does not completely remove sagebrush, it can reduce suitable 
nesting habitat, herbaceous understory vegetation used for forage and 
cover by sage-grouse hens and chicks, and potentially insects used for 
feeding by chicks. Additionally, isolation and fragmentation of 
populations due to habitat losses from wildfire presents a higher 
probability of extirpation in disjunct areas (Knick and Hanser 2011, p. 
395; Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 469). This is a concern within the Bi-State 
area, specifically throughout the Pine Nut and portions of the South 
Mono and Desert Creek-Fales PMUs where burned habitat may be 
influencing already small and disjunct populations. As areas become 
fragmented and isolated through disturbances such as wildfire, 
persistence may be hampered by the limited ability of individuals to 
disperse into areas that are otherwise not self-sustaining. Thus, while 
direct loss of habitat due to wildfire has been shown to be a 
significant factor associated with population persistence for sage-
grouse (Beck et al. 2012, p. 452), the indirect effect posed by loss of 
connectivity among populations may greatly expand the influence of this 
threat beyond the physical fire perimeter (Knick and Hanser 2011, pp. 
401-404).
    Sagebrush recovery rates following wildfire are highly variable, 
and precise estimates are often hampered by limited data from older 
burns. Factors contributing to the rate of shrub recovery include the 
amount of and distance from unburned habitat, abundance and viability 
of seed in soil seed bank (sagebrush seeds are typically viable for one 
to three seasons depending on species), rate of seed dispersal, and 
pre- and post-fire weather, which influences seedling germination and 
establishment (Young and Evans 1989, p. 204; Maier et al. 2001, p. 701; 
Ziegenhagen and Miller 2009, p. 201). Full recovery to pre-burn 
conditions in mountain sagebrush communities ranges between 25 and 100 
years, and in Wyoming big sagebrush communities potentially ranges 
between 50 and 120 years (Baker 2011, pp. 194-195). By 25 years post-
fire, Wyoming big sagebrush typically has less than 5 percent pre-fire 
canopy cover (Baker 2011, p. 195).
    Wildfire is considered a relatively high risk across all the PMUs 
in the Bi-State area due to its ability to affect large landscapes in a 
short period of time (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 19-49). Furthermore, the 
future potential of this risk is exacerbated by the presence of people, 
invasive species, and climate change. While numerous wildfires have 
occurred in the Pine Nut, and South Mono PMUs (fewer in the other PMUs) 
over the past 18 years, to date there have been relatively few large-
scale events (Service 2020, Table 3). In general, current data also do 
not indicate an increase of wildfires in the PMUs over time with the 
exception of the Pine Nut PMU where fire occurrence is more frequent 
(Service 2018, unpublished data). Furthermore, cheatgrass has a more 
substantial presence in the Pine Nut PMU, which appears to mirror (much 
more than the rest of the Bi-State area) the damaging fire and invasive 
species cycle impacting sagebrush habitat across much of the Great 
Basin.
    The loss of habitat due to wildfire across the West is anticipated 
to increase due to the intensifying synergistic interactions among 
fire, people, invasive species, and climate change (Miller et al. 2011, 
p. 184). The past- and present-day fire regimes across the sage-
grouse's range have changed with a demonstrated increase of wildfires 
in the more arid Wyoming big sagebrush communities and a decrease of 
wildfire across many mountain sagebrush communities (Miller et al. 
2011, pp. 167-169). Both altered fire regime scenarios have caused 
significant losses to sage-grouse habitat through facilitating conifer 
expansion at high-elevation interfaces and nonnative invasive weed 
encroachment at lower elevations (Miller et al. 2011, pp. 167-169). In 
the face of climate change, both scenarios are anticipated to worsen 
(Baker 2011, p. 200; Miller et al. 2011, p. 179), including in the Bi-
State area. Predicted changes in temperature, precipitation, and carbon 
dioxide are all anticipated to influence vegetation dynamics and alter 
fire patterns, resulting in increasing loss and conversion of sagebrush 
habitats (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 157). Furthermore, climate scientists 
suggest that, in addition to the predicted change in climate toward a 
warmer and generally drier Great Basin, variability

[[Page 18075]]

of annual and decadal wet-dry cycles will likely increase and act in 
concert with fire, disease, and invasive species to further stress the 
sagebrush ecosystem (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 152, Ault et al. 2014, p. 
7538). The anticipated increase in suitable conditions for wildland 
fire will likely further interact with people and infrastructure. 
Human-caused fires have increased and are correlated with road presence 
across the sage-grouse range (Miller et al. 2011, p. 171).
    Based on the best available information, approximately 117 wildfire 
events have affected approximately 83,859 ha (207,220 ac) of sagebrush 
habitat across the Bi-State area since 2000, but conversion of 
sagebrush habitat to a nonnative invasive vegetation community has been 
largely restricted (Pine Nut PMU withstanding). It appears that a lack 
of historical fire has facilitated the establishment of woodland 
vegetation communities and loss of sagebrush habitat. Both the ``too 
little'' and ``too much'' fire scenarios present challenges for the Bi-
State DPS. The former influences the current degree of connectivity 
among sage-grouse populations in the Bi-State DPS and the extent of 
available sagebrush habitat, likely affecting sage-grouse population 
size and persistence. The latter, under current conditions, now has the 
potential to quickly alter substantial percentages of remaining 
sagebrush habitat. Restoration of sagebrush communities is challenging, 
requires many years, and may be ineffective in the presence of 
nonnative invasive grass species. Research in the Great Basin found 
that sage-grouse habitat features are unlikely to occur in many burned 
areas even 20 years post-restoration (Arkle et al. 2014, p. 15).
    Several regulatory mechanisms target the potential impact of 
wildfires and altered fire regime. Within the Bi-State area, 
participants in the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) have treated areas 
to reduce the threat of wildfire by using broadcast burns and 
mechanical treatment (e.g., fuel breaks and conifer removal projects). 
To lower the risk of wildfire, approximately 1,806 ha (4,462 ac) of 
fuels reduction treatments have been conducted to remove conifers (Bi-
State TAC 2018, unpublished data). Additionally, the reseeding of 7,699 
ha (19,025 ac) from past fires has been completed. The efficacy of 
these treatments to achieve desired results is generally unknown.
    Overall, the threat of wildfire and the existing altered fire 
regime occurs throughout the Bi-State DPS's range. We concluded in the 
proposed listing rule that significant impacts would be expected to 
continue or increase in the future based on a continued fire frequency 
pattern that exacerbates pinyon-juniper encroachment into sagebrush 
habitat in some locations, but also an increased fire frequency in 
other locations that promotes the spread of cheatgrass and other 
invasive species that in turn can hamper recovery of sagebrush habitat. 
Within the Bi-State DPS, the continued reduced fire frequency 
exacerbates pinyon-juniper encroachment into sagebrush habitat in some 
locations. However, an increased fire frequency in other locations 
promotes the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species that in 
turn can hamper recovery of sagebrush habitats in other locations. 
While it is not currently possible to predict the extent or location of 
future fire events in the Bi-State area, we anticipate fire frequency 
to increase in the future due to the increasing presence of cheatgrass, 
human footprint, and the projected effects of climate change.
    The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter 
effects such as wildfire ignition risks and catastrophic fire. Fuels 
reduction projects and rehabilitation efforts post-wildfire have been 
and will continue to be implemented into the future to address the 
potential impacts from wildfire, including (but not limited to): 
Conducting conifer (pinyon-juniper) removal and conducting weed 
treatments for invasive, nonnative plants such as cheatgrass. Because 
we have determined that the partially completed and future conservation 
efforts will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of 
Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we conclude 
that impacts due to the threat of wildfires and altered fire regime 
have been reduced since the time of the 2013 proposed listing rule. We 
expect that, into the future, continued implementation of the BSAP will 
further reduce the impacts of wildfire and altered fire regime.

Climate

    In considering future climate projections for the Bi-State area, we 
analyzed multi-model ensembles that made use of multiple greenhouse gas 
emission scenarios. In general, downscaled climate change model 
predictions in the Bi-State area tend to agree on an increasing 
temperature regime (Cayan et al. 2008, pp. S38-S40; He et al. 2018, p. 
11; Gonzalez et al. 2018, Chapter 25) and stable to increasing local 
precipitation, with a shift in timing of local precipitation events 
(Diffenbaugh et al. 2005, p. 15776; Cayan et al. 2008, p. S28; He et 
al. 2018, p. 14: Reich et al. 2018, p. 21). The environment will be 
relatively drier due to elevated temperature, increased rates of 
evapotranspiration, more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, 
and more frequent and prolonged drought (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 150; 
He et al. 2018, pp. 9, 11, 16). The precipitation variables are an 
important predictor of sagebrush occurrence as well as to greater sage-
grouse occurrence, as timing and quantity of precipitation greatly 
influences plant community composition and extent--specifically forb 
production, which in turn affects nest and chick survival and 
ultimately population performance (Blomberg et al. 2012, p. 7; Coates 
et al. 2018, p. 252). Impacts associated with climate change may 
increase the magnitude of threats impacting the Bi-State DPS, as its 
effects interact with other stressors such as disease, invasive 
species, prey availability, moisture, vegetation community dynamics, 
disturbance regimes, habitat degradation, and habitat loss (Service 
2020, p. 89).
    Downscaled climate change projections in the Great Basin and 
Eastern Sierra also predict acceleration in fire frequency, with fires 
potentially becoming larger and more severe, and fire seasons becoming 
longer (Service 2020, pp. 87-88). Furthermore, drought frequency and 
persistence are anticipated to increase (Ault et al. 2014, p. 7545; 
Reich et al. 2018, p. 31; Gonzalez et al. 2018, entire). In the Bi-
State area, drought is a natural part of the sagebrush ecosystem. Sage-
grouse population performance in the Bi-State region responds to 
alterations in annual precipitation (Coates et al. 2018, p. 252; Coates 
et al. 2020, p. 27). While there is variation among subpopulations, on 
average findings suggest a 50 percent increase in precipitation 
corresponds to a 15.5 percent increase in population growth the 
following year. Moreover, these results indicate that precipitation 
needs to be approximately 20 percent greater than average for 
population recovery following drought, consistent with results from the 
Great Basin in the absence of wildfire (Coates et al. 2016b, p. 12747; 
Coates et al. 2018, p. 255).
    Sage-grouse are affected by drought through the loss of vegetative 
habitat components, reduced insect production (Connelly and Braun 1997, 
p. 9), and potentially exacerbation of West Nile virus (WNv) and 
predation exposure (Gibson et al. 2017, p. 177; Prochazka et al. 2017, 
p. 47; Coates et al. 2018, p. 255). Drought reduces vegetation cover 
(Milton et al. 1994, p. 75; Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7-18), potentially 
resulting in

[[Page 18076]]

increased soil erosion and subsequent reduced soil depths, decreased 
water infiltration, and reduced water storage capacity. These habitat 
component losses can result in declining sage-grouse populations due to 
increased nest predation and early brood mortality associated with 
decreased nest and brood cover and food availability (Braun 1998, p. 
149; Moynahan et al. 2007, p. 1781). Furthermore, there are known 
occasions where the reduced condition of brood-rearing habitat due to 
weather has resulted in little to no recruitment within certain PMUs 
(Bodie, Pine Nut) (Gardner 2009, pers. comm.; Coates 2012, pers. 
comm.).
    Within the Bi-State area, several projects have been undertaken to 
improve meadows and riparian areas for sage-grouse that could help 
increase population resiliency in response to increasing frequency of 
drought. These projects include grazing exclosures, changes to grazing 
management plans, prescribed fires, invasive plant control, mechanical 
treatments, and conservation easements intended to improve the 
resiliency of meadow habitats on privately owned lands (Bi-State TAC 
2018, unpublished data).
    Climate change is not known to currently impact the Bi-State DPS to 
such a degree that the viability of the species is at stake, although 
climate change has been shown to influence the impact of drought and 
the annual water cycle and these in turn have been shown to influence 
grouse population performance in the Bi-State area (Coates et al. 2018, 
p. 251; Reich et al. 2018, pp. 31, 33). However, while it is reasonable 
to assume the Bi-State area will experience vegetation changes into the 
future (as presented above), we do not know the degree to which these 
changes will ultimately have impacts on the Bi-State DPS. An analysis 
conducted by NatureServe, which incorporates much of the information 
presented above, suggests a substantial contraction of both sagebrush 
and sage-grouse range in the Bi-State area by 2060 (Comer et al. 2013, 
pp. 142, 145).
    Occurrence of cheatgrass has generally been restricted to 
elevations below approximately 1,700 m (5,500 ft.) above mean sea level 
(Bradley 2010, p. 202). More recently, this barrier appears less 
certain in the Bi-State area as cheatgrass occurs at elevations 
previously thought to be relatively unfavorable based on the grass's 
ecology. This situation suggests that few locations in the Bi-State 
area are immune to cheatgrass invasion. Climate change may strongly 
influence the spread of this species as the available climate data 
suggests changes in timing of precipitation and increasing winter 
temperatures favorable to this species (Bradley 2009, p. 200). 
Predictions on the timing, type, and amount of precipitation contain 
the greatest uncertainty. In the Bi-State area, model scenarios that 
result in the greatest expansion of cheatgrass suggest much of the area 
remains suitable to cheatgrass presence with some additional high-
elevation sites in the Bodie Hills, White Mountains, and Long Valley 
becoming more suitable than they are today (Bradley 2009, p. 204). On 
the opposite end of the spectrum, model scenarios that result in the 
greatest contraction in cheatgrass range suggest low-elevation sites 
such as Desert Creek-Fales and Mount Grant PMUs become less suitable 
for this invasive species but high-elevation sites (Bodie and White 
Mountains PMUs), where habitat conditions are generally marginal today, 
become more suitable in the future.
    Based on this information we assume that climate change (acting 
both alone and in concert with impacts such as wildfire and nonnative 
invasive species) could be pervasive throughout the range of the Bi-
State DPS, potentially degrading habitat to such a degree that all 
populations would be negatively affected with some low-elevation sites 
or populations currently exposed to greater cheatgrass abundance (Pine 
Nut, Desert Creek-Fales, South Mono and portions of the Mount Grant 
PMUs). Therefore, given the scope and potential severity of climate 
change when interacting with other threats in the future, the overall 
impact of climate change to the Bi-State DPS at this time is considered 
moderate to high.
    We concluded in the proposed listing rule that climate change will 
potentially act in combination with other impacts to the Bi-State DPS, 
further diminishing habitat and increasing population isolation, making 
the DPS more susceptible to demographic and genetic challenges or 
disease. Although no regulatory mechanisms are available that can 
ameliorate the effect of changing climate or increasing drought, 
ongoing implementation of various conservation measures in the BSAP 
increases the resilience of the habitat to the effects of threats 
exacerbated by climate change and drought, such as wildfire and 
invasive plants (e.g., through removal of pinyon-juniper woodland). We 
expect that, into the future, continued implementation of the BSAP will 
further reduce the impacts of these threats associated with climate 
change.

Recreation

    Recreational activities such as fishing, hiking, horseback riding, 
and camping, off-highway vehicle (OHV) use (including snowmobiles), and 
mountain biking occur throughout the range of the greater sage-grouse, 
including throughout the Bi-State DPS area. These activities can 
degrade wildlife resources, water, and land by distributing refuse, 
disturbing and displacing wildlife, increasing animal mortality, and 
decreasing diversity of plant communities (Boyle and Samson 1985, pp. 
110-112).
    The effects of OHV use on sage-grouse have not been directly 
studied (Knick et al. 2011, p. 219). However, sage-grouse avoidance of 
activities associated with development suggests they are disturbed by 
persistent human presence (Holloran 2005, pp. 43, 53, 58; Doherty et 
al. 2008, p. 194). Sage-grouse response to disturbance may be 
influenced by the type of activity, recreationist behavior, 
predictability of activity, frequency and magnitude, activity timing, 
and activity location (Knight and Cole 1995, p. 71). Disruption of 
sage-grouse during vulnerable periods at leks, or during nesting or 
early brood-rearing, could affect reproduction and survival (Baydack 
and Hein 1987, pp. 537-538).
    Indirect effects to sage-grouse from recreational activities may 
include impacts to vegetation and soils and facilitation of the spread 
of invasive species. One study found long-term (2-year) reductions in 
sagebrush shrub canopy cover as the result of repeated OHV trips (Payne 
et al. 1983, p. 329). Increased sediment production and decreased soil 
infiltration rates were observed after disturbance by motorcycles and 
four-wheel drive trucks on two desert soils in southern Nevada; noise 
from these activities can also cause additional disturbance (Eckert et 
al. 1979, p. 395; Knick et al. 2011, p. 219; Blickley et al. 2012, p. 
467). Unpaved roads fragment sagebrush landscapes and subsidize 
predators adapted to humans; they also provide disturbed surfaces that 
facilitate the spread of invasive plant species (Knick et al. 2011, p. 
219).
    Potential disturbance caused by non-motorized forms of recreation 
(fishing, camping, hiking, big game hunting, dog training) are most 
prevalent in the South Mono and Bodie PMUs. These PMUs are also exposed 
to tourism-associated activity centered on Mono Lake and the towns of 
Mammoth Lakes and Bodie. The exact amount of recreational activity or 
user days occurring in the area is not known; however, the number of 
people in the area appears to increase

[[Page 18077]]

annually (Nelson 2008, pers. comm.; Taylor 2018, pers. comm.).
    A 2012 assessment reported recreation and human disturbance to be 
low-level threats in the Bodie and Mount Grant PMUs but relatively high 
threats in the Pine Nut and South Mono PMUs (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 19, 
32, 37, 49). To address these apparent challenges, across the Bi-State, 
vehicular travel is limited to designated roads and trails and 
development of new roads is largely restricted. In addition, organized 
OHV events are prohibited during specific dates and in specific 
habitats (breeding and winter) limiting the exposure of birds (BLM 
2016, pp. 13-14; HTNF 2016, p. 43).
    Currently, there are few quantifiable data available to assess the 
degree of the impacts of recreation. The level of recreational activity 
associated with a specific road, for instance, is not known even though 
anecdotal information suggests that the level of activity (OHV numbers) 
is generally increasing. All the PMUs are relatively close to urban 
centers; thus, we anticipate recreational activity will continue and 
likely increase. However, all public lands in the Bi-State restrict OHV 
use to designated roads and trails and existing land use plans afford 
management oversite of this activity, thereby lessening the likelihood 
of broad scale habitat degradation.
    Overall, recreation occurs throughout the Bi-State DPS's range, 
although we do not have data that would indicate impacts to sage-grouse 
or their habitat are significant. We concluded in the proposed listing 
rule and reaffirm here that, by itself, recreation is not considered a 
significant impact at this time. However, if left unchecked, some forms 
of recreation could become a concern based on anticipated increases of 
recreational use within the Bi-State area in the future. Conservation 
efforts that address recreational impacts have continued to be 
implemented since publication of the proposed listing rule, including 
(but not limited to): Reducing human-related disturbances in high-use 
recreation areas (e.g., installing sage-grouse educational signs), 
conducting seasonal closures of lek viewing areas, and implementing 
both permanent and seasonal road closures. With continued 
implementation of conservation actions associated with the BSAP (Bi-
State TAC 2012, entire), impacts from recreation are significantly 
reduced.
    The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter 
effects such as human disturbance to the Bi-State DPS, including 
recreation-related impacts. Because we have determined that the 
partially completed and future conservation efforts will be implemented 
and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When 
Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe impacts associated with 
recreation are not a concern into the future.

Disease

    Sage-grouse are hosts for a variety of parasites and diseases 
(Thorne et al. 1982, p. 338; Connelly et al. 2004, pp. 10-4-10-7; 
Christiansen and Tate, 2011, p. 114). The disease of greatest concern 
to the Bi-State DPS is WNv, which can cause serious impacts to grouse 
species, potentially influencing population dynamics (Petersen 2004, p. 
46). WNv has spread across North America since 1999 (Marra et al. 2004, 
p. 394). It is thought to have caused millions of wild bird deaths 
since its introduction, but most WNv mortality goes unnoticed or 
unreported (Ward et al. 2006, p. 101; Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 128). 
Sage-grouse are considered to have high susceptibility to WNv and high 
levels of mortality (Clark et al. 2006, p. 19; McLean 2006, p. 54).
    Sage-grouse deaths resulting from WNv have been detected in 10 
States--including in the Bi-State area--and in 1 Canadian Province 
(Walker and Naugle 2011, pp. 133, 135). Since 2002, mortalities have 
been documented annually. Mortality from WNv has been shown to cause 
population declines in populations throughout the West (Service 2020, 
pp. 106-107). Scientists have expressed concern regarding the potential 
for exacerbating WNv persistence and spread due to the proliferation of 
surface water features (Friend et al. 2001, p. 298; Zou et al. 2006, p. 
1040; Walker et al. 2007b, p. 695; Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 140). WNv 
persists on the landscape after it first occurs as an epizootic, 
suggesting this virus will remain a long-term issue in affected areas 
(McLean 2006, p. 50).
    The long-term response of different sage-grouse populations to WNv 
infections is expected to vary markedly depending on factors that 
influence exposure and susceptibility, such as temperature, land uses, 
and sage-grouse population size (Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 140). 
Small, isolated, or genetically limited populations are at higher risk 
as an infection may reduce population size below a threshold where 
recovery is no longer possible, as observed in an extirpated population 
in Wyoming (Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 140). Larger populations may be 
able to absorb impacts resulting from WNv as long as the quality and 
extent of available habitat supports positive population growth (Walker 
and Naugle 2011, p. 140). However, impacts from this disease may act in 
combination with other stressors resulting in reduction of population 
size, bird distribution, or persistence (Walker et al. 2007a, p. 2652). 
Small populations, such as the populations within the Bi-State area, 
may be at high risk of extirpation simply due to their low population 
numbers and the additive mortality WNv causes (Christiansen and Tate, 
2011, pp. 125-126).
    The documented loss of four sage-grouse to WNv in the Bodie (n=3) 
and Desert Creek-Fales (n=1) PMUs (Casazza et al. 2009, p. 45) has 
heightened our concerns about the potential impact of this disease in 
the Bi-State area. At that time, these disease-caused mortalities 
represented only 4 percent of the total sage-grouse mortalities 
observed in the Bi-State area, but additional mortality attributed to 
predation could have been due in part to disease-weakened individuals. 
Mortality caused by disease acts in a density-independent or additive 
manner. The fact that it can act independently of habitat and suppress 
a population below carrying capacity makes it a concern. Existing and 
developing models suggest that the occurrence of WNv is likely to 
increase throughout the range of the species, and, based on projected 
increases in temperature caused by changes in climate, occurrence in 
the Bi-State may also increase (Paz 2015, p. 3).
    Based on our current knowledge of the virus, the relatively high 
elevations and cold temperatures common in much of the Bi-State area 
likely reduce the chance of a DPS-wide outbreak. However, warmer, lower 
elevation sites such as portions of the Mount Grant and Desert Creek-
Fales PMUs may be more suitable for outbreaks. The impact on individual 
populations from WNv outbreaks may influence the dynamics of the Bi-
State DPS as a whole through the loss of population resiliency and the 
associated challenges of recolonizing extirpated sites through natural 
emigration.
    Climate change may also influence the spread of disease. 
Temperature and precipitation both directly influence potential for WNv 
transmission (Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 131). In sage-grouse, WNv 
outbreaks appear to be most severe in years with higher summer 
temperatures (Walker and Naugle 2011, p. 131) and under drought 
conditions (Epstein and Defilippo 2001, p. 105). Therefore, current 
climate change projections for higher summer temperatures, more 
frequent or severe drought, or both make more severe WNv outbreaks 
likely in low-elevation sage-grouse habitats where WNv is already

[[Page 18078]]

endemic, and also make WNv outbreaks possible in higher elevation sage-
grouse habitats that have been WNv-free due to relatively cold 
conditions.
    The development or maintenance of anthropogenic water sources in 
the Bi-State area, some of which likely provide suitable conditions for 
breeding mosquitoes, potentially increases the likely prevalence of the 
virus above that which could be sustained naturally by existing water 
bodies such as streams and meadows. To partially ameliorate this 
concern, Federal land managers require livestock water troughs to be 
emptied when not in use (BLM 2016, p. 11; HTNF 2016, p. 17).
    We concluded in the proposed listing rule, and reaffirm here, that 
by itself, WNv is not considered a significant impact at this time 
because it is currently limited by ambient temperatures that do not 
allow consistent vector and virus maturation. However, WNv could be a 
concern for the future if predicted temperature increases associated 
with climate change result in this threat becoming more consistently 
prevalent. No current regulatory mechanisms address the impacts of WNv. 
However, with continued implementation of conservation actions (WNv 
surveillance and mosquito abatement measures) associated with the BSAP 
(Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), the minor or potential impacts from WNv 
are reduced to the point that we find disease is not currently 
impacting the resiliency of the Bi-State DPS, nor do we expect it to 
impact the DPS in the foreseeable future.

Predation

    Predation of sage-grouse is the most commonly identified cause of 
direct mortality during all life stages (Schroeder et al. 1999, p. 9; 
Connelly et al. 2000b, p. 228; Casazza et al. 2009, p. 45; Connelly et 
al. 2011a, p. 65). Major predators of adult sage-grouse include several 
species of diurnal raptors (especially the golden eagle (Aquila 
chrysaetos)), coyotes (Canis latrans), red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), and 
bobcats (Lynx rufus) (Hartzler 1974, pp. 532-536; Schroeder et al. 
1999, pp. 10-11; Schroeder and Baydack 2001, p. 25; Rowland and Wisdom 
2002, p. 14; Hagen 2011, p. 97). Juvenile sage-grouse also are killed 
by many raptors as well as common ravens, badgers, red foxes, coyotes 
and weasels (Mustela spp.) (Braun 1995, entire; Schroeder et al. 1999, 
p. 10). Nest predators include badgers, weasels, coyotes, common 
ravens, American crows, and magpies (Pica spp.); sage-grouse eggs have 
also been consumed by elk (Cervus canadensis) (Holloran and Anderson 
2003, p. 309) and domestic cows (Bovus spp.) (Coates et al. 2008, pp. 
425-426; Dinkins et al. 2013, p. 305). However, sage-grouse have co-
evolved with a variety of predators, and their cryptic plumage and 
behavioral adaptations have allowed them to persist (Schroeder et al. 
1999, p. 10; Coates 2007, p. 69; Coates and Delehanty 2008, p. 635; 
Hagen 2011, p. 96). Although many predators consume sage-grouse, none 
specialize on the species (Hagen 2011, p. 97). Generalist predators may 
still have a significant effect on ground-nesting birds, because unlike 
specialist predators, generalist predator numbers are independent of 
prey density (Coates 2007, p. 4).
    Predation is typically the principal cause of nest loss, which is a 
key determinant in sage-grouse population dynamics (Schroeder et al. 
1999, p. 15; Taylor et al. 2012, p. 342). Sage-grouse nest depredation 
can be total (all eggs destroyed) or partial (one or more eggs 
destroyed). However, hens abandon nests in either case (Coates 2007, p. 
26). Nest success across the California portion of the Bi-State area is 
within the normal range, with some locations even higher than 
previously documented (Kolada 2009a, p. 1344; Mathews et al. 2018, p. 
54). However, the lowest estimates occur in Long Valley (South Mono 
PMU; 21 percent; Kolada 2009a, p. 1344), which is of concern as this is 
a core population for the species in the Bi-State area and is also the 
population most likely exposed to the greatest amount of nest predators 
(Kolada et al. 2009b, p. 1344; Mathews et al. 2018, p. 53). The 
negative impact from reduced nesting success in this location is 
presumably being offset by other demographic statistics such as chick 
or adult survival (Service 2020, p. 116).
    A number of factors have been reported to influence the density and 
diversity of predators, including agricultural development, landscape 
fragmentation, livestock presence, habitat alterations, and human 
populations, among others (Service 2020, p. 113). These factors have 
the potential to increase predation pressure on all life stages of 
sage-grouse by forcing birds to nest in less suitable or marginal 
habitats with no cover to shield them, and by increasing travel time 
through habitats where they are vulnerable to predation. Where sage-
grouse habitat has been altered, the influx of predators can decrease 
annual recruitment into a population (Service 2020, p. 113).
    Raven abundance has increased as much as 1,500 percent in some 
areas of western North America since the 1960s (Coates and Delhanty 
2010, p. 244). Human-made structures in the environment increase the 
magnitude of raven predation, particularly in low-canopy cover areas, 
by providing ravens with perches and nesting substrate (Braun 1998, pp. 
145-146; Coates 2007, p. 155; Bui 2009, p. 2). Reduction in patch size 
and diversity of sagebrush habitat, as well as the construction of 
fences, power lines, landfills, and other infrastructure (as discussed 
in Infrastructure) also are likely to encourage the presence of the 
common raven (Coates et al. 2008, p. 426; Bui 2009, p. 4; Howe et al. 
2014, p. 41). High sage-grouse nest densities in small patches of 
quality habitat (which result from habitat fragmentation or disturbance 
associated with the presence of edges, fencerows, or trails) may 
increase predation rates by making foraging easier for predators 
(Holloran 2005, p. C37).
    The presence of ravens is negatively associated with grouse nest 
and brood fate (Bui 2009, p. 27; Gibson et al. 2018, pp. 14-15). Raven 
abundance was strongly associated with sage-grouse nest failure in 
northeastern Nevada, with resultant negative effects on sage-grouse 
reproduction; an increase of 1 raven per 10-km (6-mi) survey transect 
was associated with a 7.4 percent increase in nest failure (Coates and 
Delehanty 2010, p. 243). In the Virginia Mountains (just north of the 
Bi-State DPS), ravens were the most common nest predator, accounting 
for almost 47 percent of nest depredations (Lockyer et al. 2013, p. 
246).
    Threats associated with livestock grazing and predation may 
interact. In general, all recorded encounters between livestock and 
grouse nests resulted in hens flushing from nests (Coates et al. 2008, 
p. 462), which could expose the eggs to predation. There is strong 
evidence that visual predators like ravens use hen movements to locate 
sage-grouse nests (Coates 2007, p. 33); this is a concern for the Bi-
State DPS given that ravens are the primary predators of sage-grouse in 
the Bi-State area. Livestock may also trample nests and sagebrush 
bushes and seedlings, thereby impacting future sage-grouse food and 
cover (Connelly et al. 2004, p. 7-31). Additionally, the odds of common 
raven occurrence, a pervasive sage-grouse nest predator, increased by 
approximately 46 percent in areas where livestock were present (Coates 
et al. 2016a, p. 10). The presence of infrastructure might also 
increase the magnitude of predation; increased raven presence may be 
attributable to the presence of water developments and associated 
perching structures

[[Page 18079]]

(windmills and fences) (Coates et al. 2016a, p. 10).
    Predator removal efforts have sometimes shown short-term gains that 
may benefit seasonal survival rates, but there is limited support of 
these efforts influencing sustainable population growth (Cote and 
Sutherland 1997, p. 402; Hagen 2011, p. 9; Leu and Hanser 2011, p. 27; 
Dinkins et al. 2016, pp. 54-55; Peebles et al. 2017, p. 475). For 
example, raven removal has been shown to have a positive effect on nest 
success (Dinkins et al. 2016, p. 54); however, ultimate results on 
population growth rates are negligible or not as well understood. 
Removal of ravens from an area in northeastern Nevada caused only 
short-term reductions in raven populations (less than 1 year) as 
apparently transient birds from neighboring sites repopulated the 
removal area (Coates 2007, p. 151). Raven removal in one Wyoming study 
resulted in a 50 percent reduction in raven densities during 2008-2014, 
while non-removal sites saw a 42 percent increase in raven densities 
(Peebles et al. 2017, p. 476). The authors reported increases in lek 
counts following a 1-year lag during raven removal; however, other 
factors were also associated with increased lek counts in this study 
that included minimum temperatures and precipitation during the brood-
rearing period.
    As specified in the BSAP and associated project spreadsheet (Bi-
State TAC 2012, entire), the participants have worked to reduce threats 
to sage-grouse in the Bi-State DPS from predators. Removal of 
infrastructure (e.g., landfills, tall structures) may be a crucial step 
to reducing the presence of sage-grouse predators (Bui 2009, pp. 36-37; 
Leu and Hanser 2011, pp. 270-271). In the Bodie PMU, perching and 
nesting sites have been eliminated by infrastructure removal (e.g., 
windmill, transmission line). In the Desert Creek/Fales PMU, 3 km (1.85 
mi) of fence in the Sweetwater Summit area was fitted with perch 
deterrents. Additionally, nearly 24,281 ha (60,000 ac) of conifer-
encroached sagebrush have been treated in the Bodie, Desert Creek/
Fales, Pine Nut, Mount Grant, and South Mono PMUs to remove conifers 
and reduce perch sites for predators.
    Overall, predation is currently known to occur throughout the Bi-
State DPS's range. It is facilitated by habitat fragmentation and 
composition, infrastructure (fences, power lines, and roads) and other 
human activities that may be altering natural population dynamics in 
specific areas throughout the Bi-State DPS's range. The impacts of 
predation on sage-grouse can increase where habitat quality has been 
compromised by anthropogenic activities and ultimately influence 
population performance (Coates 2007, pp. 154, 155; Bui 2009, p. 16; 
Hagen 2011, p. 100). Landscape fragmentation, habitat degradation, and 
human populations have likely increased predator populations through 
increasing the ease of securing prey, and through human structures like 
landfills adding food sources. Other human structures can provide nest 
or den substrates for predator species. Certain sage-grouse populations 
are exhibiting deviations in vital rates below those anticipated, and 
the deviation may be related to predation. The populations with this 
issue are the Long Valley population (South Mono PMU), which is one of 
the two largest (core) populations in the Bi-State DPS, as well to the 
Desert Creek population (Desert Creek-Fales PMU) and the Pine Nut PMU. 
If assuming potential predation is connected to the deviations, the 
Bodie and White Mountains PMUs are likely least affected by predation.
    At natural levels and in unaltered habitat, it is unlikely that 
predation would be a significant impact to the DPS, given that the 
sage-grouse have coevolved with a number of predators, and no predators 
specialize on sage-grouse. However, we recognize that, in concert with 
altered habitat, it may become an increasing concern in the future. As 
more habitats face development (including roads, power lines, and other 
anthropogenic features such as landfills, airports, and urbanization), 
we expect the risk of increased predation to spread, possibly with 
negative effects on the sage-grouse population trends. We concluded in 
the proposed listing rule, and reaffirm here, that, by itself, 
predation is not considered a significant impact at this time. There 
are no regulatory mechanisms addressing predation directly, but 
regulatory mechanisms and conservation efforts that indirectly 
influence predation have continued to be implemented since publication 
of the proposed listing rule, including (but not limited to): Removing 
and limiting structures that attract predators (e.g., fencing, power 
lines), and conducting initial procedures to remove the landfill in 
Long Valley. With continued implementation of conservation actions 
associated with the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), impacts from 
predation are significantly reduced.
    The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) includes measures to counter 
effects such as predation risks to the Bi-State DPS. Because we have 
determined that the partially completed and future conservation efforts 
will be implemented and effective (see Policy for Evaluation of 
Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, below), we believe 
that predation is not a concern into the future.

Small Population Size and Population Isolation

    The Bi-State DPS is relatively small and both geographically and 
genetically isolated from the remainder of the greater sage-grouse 
distribution. All isolated populations of sage-grouse are more 
vulnerable to genetic, demographic, or stochastic events. However, 
available data indicate genetic diversity in the Bi-State area is 
currently high (Oyler-McCance and Quinn 2011, p. 18). Thus, we 
currently have no indication that genetic factors such as inbreeding 
depression, hybridization, or loss of genetic diversity are acting on 
the Bi-State DPS. However, populations in the Bi-State area have unique 
detectable qualities that allow differentiation from one another 
(Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, entire; Tebbenkamp 2014, entire). Also, the 
Parker Meadows area (a single isolated lek system located in the South 
Mono PMU) is experiencing a disproportionately high degree of nest 
failures due to nonviable eggs (Gardner 2009, pers. comm.), suggesting 
a possible manifestation of genetic challenges; this small breeding 
complex has the lowest reported genetic diversity in the Bi-State area 
(Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 1304). We do not know if this is caused 
by inbreeding depression, loss of genetic diversity, or other factors, 
but to address this, a translocation project was developed in 
conjunction with the USGS and implemented in 2017. There has been some 
initial success in survival of transferred broods (Mathews et al. 2018, 
p. 37).
    The Bi-State DPS comprises approximately 50 active leks 
representing several relatively discrete populations. Fitness and 
population size across a variety of taxa are strongly correlated, and 
smaller populations are more challenged by environmental and 
demographic stochasticity (Keller and Waller 2002, pp. 239-240; Reed 
2005, p. 566). These small, isolated populations may face future 
genetic challenges. When coupled with mortality stressors related to 
human activity and significant fluctuations in annual population size, 
long-term persistence of small populations (in general) can be 
challenging (Traill et al. 2010, entire). The Pine Nut PMU has the 
smallest number of sage-grouse of all Bi-State area PMUs (usually less 
than 100

[[Page 18080]]

individuals as observed from data collected between 2003 and 2017, 
representing approximately 5 percent of the DPS). However, each 
population in the Bi-State DPS is relatively small, as is the entire 
DPS on average (estimated at approximately 3,280 individuals).
    One way to address population health and viability is through 
analysis of effective population size. Effective population size is 
defined as the size of the idealized population of breeding adults that 
would experience the same rate of loss of heterozygosity, change in the 
average inbreeding coefficient, or change in variance in allele 
frequency through genetic drift as the actual population (Frankham et 
al. 2002, pp. 312-317). As effective population size decreases, the 
rate of loss of genetic diversity increases. The consequences of this 
loss of genetic diversity, reduced fitness through inbreeding 
depression and reduced adaptive (evolutionary) potential, are thought 
to elevate extinction risk (Frankham 2005, p. 135). Studies suggest 
effective population size should exceed 50 to 100 individuals to avoid 
short-term extinction risk caused by inbreeding depression, and 
mathematical models suggest that effective population size should 
exceed 500 individuals to retain evolutionary potential and avoid long-
term extinction risk (Franklin 1980, entire; Soule 1980, entire). Some 
estimates of effective population size have been as high as 5,000 
individuals, but these estimates are thought to be highly species 
specific and influenced by many extrinsic factors (Lande 1995, p. 789).
    Sage-grouse have one of the most polygamous mating systems observed 
among birds (Deibert 1995, p. 92). Asymmetrical mate selection (where 
only a few of the available members of one sex are selected as mates) 
should result in reduced effective population sizes (Deibert 1995, p. 
92), meaning the actual amount of genetic material contributed to the 
next generation is smaller than predicted by the number of individuals 
present in the population. Furthermore, variation in female 
reproductive success, fluctuating population size, unequal sex ratios, 
the fact that not all males breed each year, and other sage-grouse 
characteristics all reduce effective population size (Frankham 1995, p. 
796; Aldridge and Brigham 2003, p. 30; Stiver et al. 2008, p. 473; Bush 
2009, p. 108). Each of these influencing factors on effective 
population size occurs in the Bi-State DPS and suggests population 
sizes in sage-grouse must be greater than in non-lekking bird species 
to maintain long-term genetic diversity.
    The effective population size of a wildlife population is often 
much less than its actual size. We are unaware of specific data or 
literature that definitively identifies the number of sage-grouse 
needed to maintain an effective population size of birds that would 
also result in a viable population. However, some literature exists to 
help us understand the complexities of answering this question for the 
Bi-State DPS or any other region within the range of the greater sage-
grouse. One study concluded that up to 5,000 individual sage-grouse may 
be necessary to maintain an effective population size of 500 birds 
(Aldridge and Brigham 2003, p. 30). Their estimate was based on 
individual male breeding success, variation in reproductive success of 
males that do breed, and the death rate of juvenile birds. Similarly, a 
meta-analysis based on a wide array of species determined that a 
minimum viable population size (actual population size) necessary for 
long-term persistence should be on the order of 5,000 adult individuals 
(Traill et al. 2010, p. 32), though others have argued a minimum viable 
population would be from 2 to 10 times this figure (Franklin and 
Frankham 1998, p. 70; Lynch and Lande 1998, p. 72). However, another 
analysis countered that there is no single minimum population size 
number for all taxa, and that extinction risk depends on a complex 
interaction between life-history strategies, environmental context, and 
threat (Flather et al. 2011, entire).
    Based on data from 2018, the median abundance estimate of the Bi-
State DPS spring breeding population is approximately 3,305 individuals 
(95 percent CRI = 2,247-4,683; Coates et al. 2020, p. 26). This 
estimate (as well as PMU specific estimates) was derived using the 
integrated population model outputs of male abundance based on lek 
count and demographic (telemetry) data, as well as by multiple post-hoc 
adjustments, given results of ancillary research. Adjustments included 
reported distributions for detection probability (Coates et al. in 
press, entire), lek attendance probability (Wann et al. 2019, p. 7), 
and sex ratio (Hagen et al. 2018, p. 4). Also included was an 
adjustment to account for `unknown' leks, based on a 95 percent assumed 
known lek value. This value was derived from expert knowledge by 
members of the Bi-State Technical Advisory Committee. Using this 
estimate and the studies identified above describing effective 
population size being on the order of 10 to 20 percent of the actual 
population size, in the Bi-State area, the estimated average effective 
population size (for the entire Bi-State area in 2018) is approximately 
330 to 661 sage-grouse, below the 5,000 individual threshold 
recommended by some researchers, but above the 50 individual threshold. 
Genetic and radio-telemetry studies, however, indicate that some sage-
grouse populations in the Bi-State area are isolated, suggesting that 
the effective population size is actually less (Table 2). Based on 
these data, we calculate the effective population size for four 
generally discrete populations in the Bi-State (as described in Oyler-
McCance et al. 2014, Figure 4) to provide context surrounding long-term 
genetic viability of these units (Table 2).

Table 2--2018 Estimated Population Size and Range of Estimated Effective
  Population Size by Genetic Cluster for the Bi-State Area, Nevada and
                               California
------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                  Estimated median   Estimated effective
              PMU                 population size      population size
                                        2018             range 2018
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Pine Nut.......................                 33                   3-6
Desert Creek-Fales, Mount                    2,342               234-468
 Grant, Bodie..................
Long Valley....................                818                81-163
White Mountains................                 45                 4.5-9
Bi-State DPS...................              3,305               330-661
------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Empirical data from Colorado showed the effective population size 
in Gunnison sage-grouse to be about 20 percent of actual population 
size (Stiver et al. 2008, p. 478). We are unaware of any other 
published estimates of

[[Page 18081]]

minimal population sizes necessary to maintain genetic diversity and 
long-term population sustainability in sage-grouse and specifically for 
the Bi-State DPS, and whether the described effective population sizes 
above are of concern. Most populations of the Bi-State DPS have been 
below the possible minimum population sizes as described above, in 
large part due to the natural cycling of sage-grouse populations, yet 
continue to persist.
    Small population size and a discontinuous population structure 
occur throughout the Bi-State DPS's range, which could make the Bi-
State DPS more vulnerable to impacts of threats described herein both 
currently and likely in the future in the absence of any ameliorating 
conservation efforts. However, conservation efforts addressing the 
threats acting upon these small populations have been implemented since 
publication of the proposed listing rule, including (but not limited 
to) translocation of sage-grouse into the Parker Meadows subpopulation, 
restoring critical brood-rearing habitat areas, and addressing invasive 
nonnative and native plants. Because we expect conservation 
implementation to continue under the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), 
the risks associated with small population size will be reduced.

Summary of Threats

    Throughout the threats discussion, we considered individual threats 
and, where appropriate, how they interact with other threats. Here, we 
consider the threats holistically to determine their impact on the Bi-
State sage-grouse and its habitat.
    Currently and into the future, the threats with the highest impact 
to the DPS are wildfire and altered fire regimes, and nonnative 
invasive and native woodland succession. Threats from urbanization and 
habitat conversion; infrastructure; mining; grazing and rangeland 
management; climate change; predation, and small population size and 
population isolation are also occurring. Threats from recreation and 
disease affect only a few individuals a year, and we do not expect that 
rate to increase into the foreseeable future. All of these threats are 
exacerbated by the population isolation and discontinuous population 
structure.
    In summarizing the impacts of threats, we also consider impacts of 
renewable energy, commercial and recreational hunting, scientific and 
educational uses, and contaminants (including pesticides). Though 
impacts from these threats are expected to be minimal relative to the 
overall condition of the DPS (Service 2020, pp. 63-124), and though we 
did not present summary analyses of these threats in this Federal 
Register document, we still consider them when evaluating the 
cumulative impact of all threats on the DPS.
    Small, isolated populations such as those found in the Bi-State 
area are more challenged by stochastic events such as disease 
epidemics, prey population crashes, or environmental catastrophes. 
Interactions between climate change, drought, wildfire, WNv, and the 
limited potential to recover from population downturns or extirpations 
place significant challenges to the persistence of the Bi-State DPS of 
sage-grouse.
    One of the most substantial interactions of threats is the cycle 
between climate change, cheatgrass, and altered fire regimes. Warmer 
temperatures and greater concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide 
create conditions favorable to cheatgrass, thus continuing the positive 
feedback cycle between the invasive annual grass and fire frequency 
(Chambers and Pellant 2008, p. 32; Global Climate Change Impacts in the 
United States 2009, p. 83; Halofsky et al. 2018, pp. 276-277). Fewer 
frost-free days also favor frost-sensitive woodland vegetation, which 
facilitates expansion of woodlands into the sagebrush biome, especially 
in the southern Great Basin (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 154). Thus, 
sagebrush habitats in the Great Basin will likely be lost at more 
southerly latitudes and low-elevation sites, and upper elevation areas 
will be more susceptible to woodland succession and cheatgrass 
invasion. In the Bi-State area, substantial changes in vegetation 
communities could occur between 2025 and 2100 (Neilson et al. 2005, p. 
155; Bradley 2010, p. 204; Comer et al. 2013, p. 142; Finch 2012, p. 
10).
    Overall, the cumulative impact of all threats affecting the Bi-
State DPS can be influenced by interactions with co-occurring threats, 
resulting in significant impacts to the resiliency, redundancy, and 
representation of the DPS as a whole. However, as a result of 
conservation actions associated with the 2012 BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, 
entire), impacts from all threats individually and combined are 
generally being reduced from their current levels and will continue to 
be reduced even more in the future.

Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing 
Decisions

    The purpose of PECE (68 FR 15100; March 28, 2003) is to ensure 
consistent and adequate evaluation of recently formalized conservation 
efforts when making listing decisions. The policy provides guidance on 
how to evaluate conservation efforts that have not yet been implemented 
or have not yet demonstrated effectiveness. The evaluation focuses on 
the certainty that the conservation efforts will be implemented and the 
effectiveness of the conservation efforts in making listing a species 
unnecessary. The policy presents nine criteria for evaluating the 
certainty of implementation and six criteria for evaluating the 
certainty of effectiveness for conservation efforts. These criteria are 
not considered comprehensive evaluation criteria. The certainty of 
implementation and the effectiveness of a formalized conservation 
effort may also depend on species-specific, habitat-specific, location-
specific, and effort-specific factors. We consider all appropriate 
factors in evaluating formalized conservation efforts. The specific 
circumstances will also determine the amount of information necessary 
to satisfy these criteria.
    To consider that a formalized conservation effort contributes to 
forming a basis for not listing a species, or listing a species as 
threatened rather than endangered, we must find that the conservation 
effort is sufficiently certain to be (1) implemented and (2) effective, 
so as to have contributed to the elimination or adequate reduction of 
one or more threats to the species identified through section 4(a)(1) 
analysis under the Act. The elimination or adequate reduction of 
section 4(a)(1) threats may lead to a determination that the species 
does not meet the definition of threatened or endangered, or is 
threatened rather than endangered.
    An agreement or plan may contain numerous conservation efforts, not 
all of which are sufficiently certain to be implemented and effective. 
Those conservation efforts that are not sufficiently certain to be 
implemented and effective cannot contribute to a determination that 
listing is unnecessary, or a determination to list as threatened rather 
than endangered. Regardless of the adoption of a conservation agreement 
or plan, however, if the best available scientific and commercial data 
indicate that the species meets the definition of ``endangered 
species'' or ``threatened species'' on the day of the listing decision, 
then we must proceed with appropriate rulemaking activity under section 
4 of the Act. Further, it is important to note that a conservation plan 
is not required to have absolute certainty of implementation and 
effectiveness in order to contribute to a

[[Page 18082]]

listing determination. Rather, we need to be reasonably certain that 
the conservation efforts will be implemented and effective such that 
the threats to the species are reduced or eliminated.
    Prior to the Bi-State DPS becoming a candidate species in 2010, a 
variety of conservation initiatives were put in place to conserve the 
DPS and its habitat. The most significant initiative was the creation 
of the Nevada Governor's Sage Grouse Conservation Team in June 2002 
who, in cooperation with local stakeholders (the Bi-State Local Area 
Working Group), developed the first edition of the Greater Sage Grouse 
Conservation Plan for the Bi-State area in 2004 (BSLPG 2004, entire) to 
begin a cooperative effort to address threats to the Bi-State DPS and 
its habitat. The 2004 Action Plan served as the foundation for the 
conservation of the Bi-State DPS and its habitat. These efforts were 
later enhanced by both local- and national-level conservation 
strategies for sage-grouse conservation (including in the Bi-State 
area) associated with organizations including the Sage Grouse 
Initiative, and the Bi-State LAWG, the latter of which is specifically 
focused on Bi-State DPS conservation.
    In December 2011, the Bi-State Executive Oversight Committee (EOC) 
was formed to leverage collective resources and assemble the best 
technical support to achieve long-term conservation of the Bi-State DPS 
and its habitat. The EOC comprises resource agency representatives from 
the Service, BLM, USFS, NRCS, USGS, NDOW, and CDFW. Recognizing that 
conservation efforts were already under way by this point in time, the 
EOC directed a Bi-State TAC, comprising technical experts/members from 
each agency, to summarize the conservation actions completed since 
2004, and to develop a comprehensive set of strategies, objectives, and 
actions that would be effective for the long-term conservation of the 
Bi-State DPS and its habitat. These strategies, objectives, and actions 
comprise the 2012 BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire), which is actively 
being implemented by the signatory agencies identified above, as well 
as Mono County, who is committed to implementing all relevant actions 
within the County (which harbors the two core populations of the Bi-
State DPS). A majority of the conservation efforts outlined in the BSAP 
have already been started or completed (see sections 2.2 and 2.3 of the 
Action Plan (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 4-13) and the updated project 
spreadsheet (Bi-State TAC 2019), and the Past and Ongoing Management 
Efforts discussion in the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 137-144).
    Additionally, in February 2013, a Conservation Objectives Team 
(COT) of State agencies and Service representatives prepared the 
Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) Conservation Objectives 
Final Report (COT Report; Service 2013a, entire). This peer-reviewed 
report serves as a benchmark, delineating reasonable objectives 
necessary for the conservation and survival of greater sage-grouse, 
including the Bi-State DPS. The guidance includes management 
recommendations for the species and its habitat and establishes 
thresholds based on the degree to which threats need to be reduced or 
ameliorated to conserve greater sage-grouse so that it would not be in 
danger of extinction or likely to become in danger of extinction within 
the foreseeable future. Conservation success is expected to be achieved 
by removing or reducing threats, such that population trends would 
eventually be stable or increasing, even if numbers are not restored to 
historical levels. The 2012 BSAP is the main document guiding 
implementation of conservation actions, and the COT provides additional 
scientific background and guidelines for those actions.
    Based on information provided in the 2013 proposed rules and 
discussions with the EOC, TAC, and LAWG, signatory agencies in 2014 
provided a package of information examining their commitments, 
including staffing and funding, to implement the actions needed for 
conservation of the Bi-State DPS and its habitat, as outlined in the 
BSAP. They also provided an updated prioritization of various 
conservation actions and site-specific locations in which to implement 
such actions, as needed, based on the Conservation Planning Tool (CPT--
linked, data-driven predictive models and interactive maps that 
identify and rank areas for management actions and provide a basis to 
evaluate those actions) and the BSAP's Adaptive Management Strategy 
(Bi-State EOC 2014, in litt.). The agency commitment letters, which 
were one component of the information provided by the EOC (BLM 2014a, 
in litt.; CDFW 2014b, in litt.; Mono County 2014, in litt.; NDOW 2014, 
in litt.; USDA 2014, in litt.; USGS 2014a, in litt.), outlined many 
partially completed or new conservation actions that will be 
implemented and completed to address the threats that were identified 
in our October 28, 2013, proposed listing rule (78 FR 64358).
    The EOC evaluated the [then current] Bi-State DPS survey and trend 
information and concluded that their unified and collaborative approach 
addresses the conservation needs of the Bi-State DPS (Bi-State EOC 
2014, in litt.). Additionally, the EOC concluded that each partner 
agency is committed to implementing the BSAP and providing the 
necessary resources to do so regardless of the outcome of the Service's 
listing decision (Bi-State EOC 2014, in litt.). In the past year, 
several agencies have provided updated letters reaffirming their 
commitment to the BSAP and the TAC (BLM 2019, in litt.; Mono County 
2018, in litt.; NDOW 2018, in litt.; NRCS 2018, in litt.; USFS 2018, in 
litt.).
    The information provided by the EOC indicates that significant 
conservation efforts are currently being implemented and that further 
actions are proposed for implementation in the future. These combined 
actions address the threats that (synergistically) are resulting in the 
most severe impacts on the DPS and its habitat now and into the future. 
These conservation actions are described in our detailed PECE analysis 
(Service 2019, entire).
    Using the criteria in our PECE policy (68 FR 15100, March 28, 
2003), we evaluated the certainty of implementation (for those measures 
not already implemented) and effectiveness of conservation measures in 
the BSAP. Below is a summary of our full PECE analysis, which can be 
found at http://www.regulations.gov under either Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-
2018-0106 or Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0107.
    The BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) was designed to reduce or 
ameliorate threats impacting the Bi-State DPS. We have determined that 
the conservation efforts in the BSAP meet the PECE criteria with regard 
to certainty of implementation because of (but not limited to): (1) The 
agency commitments of staffing and significant funding (over $45 
million in the period 2015-2024); and (2) continued participation on 
the Bi-State EOC, TAC, and LAWG to ensure the most important 
conservation efforts are occurring at any given time considering 
ongoing research and monitoring that may influence changes in 
management strategies, as outlined in the BSAP's Science-based Adaptive 
Management Plan and through use of the CPT. Additionally, we have 
certainty of implementation by the various agencies for conservation 
efforts that address many different impacts. In particular, we have 
certainty of implementation for those completed and ongoing 
conservation efforts expected to provide the most significant

[[Page 18083]]

conservation value to the Bi-State DPS and its habitat, including 
actions (as outlined in the agencies' 2014, 2018, and 2019 commitment 
letters and work plans, and the comprehensive project database (Bi-
State TAC 2019)) that:
    (1) Protect and restore critical brood-rearing habitat (reduces 
impacts from development/habitat conversion, grazing and rangeland 
management, and effects resulting from climate change). Lead agencies 
under the BSAP implementing conservation actions to reduce these 
impacts are NRCS (e.g., conservation easements, riparian/meadow 
restoration), USFS (e.g., private-public land exchanges, riparian/
meadow restoration or improvement, grazing management, wild horse 
management), BLM (e.g., riparian/meadow restoration, meadow irrigation 
and structure repair, racetrack fence removal, wild horse management), 
and Mono County (e.g., fencing modification).
    (2) Restore habitat impacted by the spread of invasive, nonnative 
plants and pinyon-juniper encroachment (reduces impacts from nonnative, 
invasive and certain native plants, wildfire, predation, and effects 
resulting from climate change). Lead agencies under the BSAP 
implementing conservation actions to reduce these impacts are NRCS 
(e.g., pinyon-juniper removal), USFS (e.g., pinyon-juniper removal, 
riparian/meadow restoration, invasive weed treatments), and BLM (e.g., 
pinyon-juniper removal, riparian/meadow restoration, invasive weed 
treatments, wildfire fuel break treatments, fencing removal).
    (3) Ensure stable or increasing sage-grouse populations and 
population structure to: (a) Prioritize management actions related to 
synergistic impacts on already fragmented habitat, such that management 
efforts occur in locations that benefit the DPS the most (reducing 
impacts such as infrastructure, urbanization, and recreation), and (b) 
develop and implement sage-grouse translocation from stable 
subpopulations to other small subpopulations that may be experiencing a 
high risk of extirpation (reduces impacts from small population size 
and population structure). Lead agencies under the BSAP implementing 
conservation actions to reduce these impacts are USGS, NDOW, and CDFW. 
Actions under way by CDFW include conducting telemetry, research, or 
monitoring surveys that inform the CPT of adjustments to the BSAP 
conservation strategy that provide the greatest benefit to the DPS or 
its habitat (see section 6.5 in the BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, pp. 75-76) 
and implementing translocation programs from stable subpopulations to 
subpopulations that may be at high risk of extinction). Actions under 
way by BLM include permanent and seasonal road closures, nesting 
habitat seasonal closures, and fencing removal or marking; actions 
under way by USFS include permanent and seasonal road closures and 
power line removal. Actions under way by Mono County include 
coordination with private landowners to encourage reduced 
infrastructure and closure and relocation of the Long Valley landfill.
    We also note that BLM, USFS, NRCS, and Mono County have provided 
specific plans and timetables laying out various conservation efforts 
for implementation from 2015 through 2024 (BLM 2014a, in litt.; Mono 
County 2014, in litt.; USDA 2014, in litt.), while CDFW, NDOW, and USGS 
have provided textual descriptions of their intended actions and 
contributions from 2015 through 2024 (CDFW 2014b, in litt.; NDOW 2014, 
in litt.; USGS 2014a, in litt.); many agencies sent letters reaffirming 
their commitment to the EOC and the TAC (BLM 2019, entire; Mono County 
2018, in litt.; NDOW 2018, in litt.; NRCS 2018, in litt.; USFS 2018, in 
litt.). Additionally, the collaboration between the Service, BLM, USFS, 
NRCS, Mono County, USGS, NDOW, and CDFW requires regular meetings and 
involvement from the parties, whether at the level of the Bi-State EOC, 
TAC, or LAWG, in order to implement the BSAP fully. These meetings have 
occurred regularly since 2014.
    We are confident that the conservation efforts (as outlined in the 
BSAP, agency commitment letters, and our detailed PECE analysis, as 
well as the TAC comprehensive project database) will continue to be 
implemented because we have a documented track record of active 
participation and implementation by the signatory agencies and 
commitments to continue implementation into the future. Conservation 
measures, such as pinyon-juniper removal, establishment of conservation 
easements for critical brood-rearing habitat, cheatgrass removal, 
permanent and seasonal closure of roads near leks, removal and marking 
of fencing, and restoration of riparian/meadow habitat have been 
completed over the past 15 years, are currently occurring, and have 
been prioritized and placed on the agency's implementation schedules 
for future implementation. Agencies have committed to remain 
participants and continue conservation of the DPS and its habitat. The 
BSAP has sufficient methods (science advisors, the CPT, and a Science-
based Adaptive Management Strategy) for determining the type and 
location of the most beneficial conservation actions to be implemented, 
including continued receipt of new population and threats information 
in the future that will guide conservation efforts.
    We have determined that the conservation efforts in the BSAP meet 
the PECE criteria with regard to certainty of effectiveness to remove 
or reduce threats facing the Bi-State DPS because of, but not limited 
to, past project effectiveness within the Bi-State area or within 
sagebrush habitat areas across the range of the greater sage-grouse, 
and documented effective methodologies for addressing the threats 
identified as impacting the Bi-State DPS. For example:
    (1) Development and Habitat Conversion--Conservation efforts to 
reduce development and habitat conversion are anticipated to occur in 
critical brood-rearing habitats across five PMUs, including through 
conservation easements and land exchanges (see detailed PECE analysis, 
Section 3.0). In total, 12,243 ha (30,254 ac) have been entered into 
conservation easements or acquired through land purchase or exchange 
since 2012 (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 25). Our analysis of the database and 
the agency commitment letters reveals partially completed and future 
conservation efforts will occur in the Pine Nut, Bodie, Desert Creek-
Fales, Mt. Grant, and South Mono PMUs, totaling approximately 7,284 ha 
(18,000 ac) of lands identified as important for conservation by the 
TAC. These efforts have funding obligated and are in various stages of 
easement development, with many anticipated to be completed in a few 
years (BSAP 2019). Further, an effort to acquire approximately 5,870 ha 
(14,500 ac) of lands in the Pine Nut PMU by the Carson City BLM has 
been approved and is anticipated to finalize in spring of 2020. These 
areas include high-priority targets identified in the BSAP, and are 
consistent with the COT Report's ex-urban conservation objective to 
limit urban and exurban development in sage-grouse habitats (Service 
2013a, p. 50). In total, approximately 31 percent of all private lands 
containing suitable sage-grouse habitat across the Bi-State are 
enrolled under an easement program or have been acquired by federal and 
State agencies and this number is expected to increase to 57 percent 
when combining additional efforts that are ongoing and reasonably 
likely to occur. Furthermore, these acquisitions represent 
approximately 67

[[Page 18084]]

percent of private lands identified as important for conservation of 
the species in the 2012 Action Plan. These actions are considered 
effective at reducing impacts from development and habitat conversion 
because conserving and managing lands in perpetuity are the most 
successful tools for permanent protection of critical sage-grouse 
habitat (as demonstrated by Pocewicz et al. (2011) in Wyoming).
    (2) Grazing and Rangeland Management--Conservation actions under 
the BSAP continue to reduce grazing impacts and ensure management of 
livestock consistent with the needs of the DPS. This includes 46 
projects across the range of the DPS that have been completed since 
2012, including (but not limited to): Maintaining, improving, or 
restoring riparian/meadow sites impacted by grazing animals across 
multiple PMUs, improving BLM grazing allotment permit terms and 
conditions to protect riparian areas, and reducing the risk of 
overgrazing that can facilitate the dominance of cheatgrass in upland 
habitats (Bi-State TAC 2019, in litt.). An additional 32 projects 
focused on maintaining area closures to permitted livestock, monitoring 
compliance with permitted terms and conditions, maintenance of ``let-
down'' fencing, and meadow irrigation have also been conducted on an 
annual and ongoing basis since 2012. The conservation efforts database 
identifies seven projects that are either in progress or not yet 
started, including new grazing permit processing and the restoration of 
degraded sagebrush and meadow habitat at several sites in the Desert-
Creek Fales, Bodie, and Mount Grant PMUs (Bi-State TAC 2019, in litt.). 
Additionally, the BSAP identifies a specific strategy (MER6) to address 
grazing issues related to wild horse populations, which are known to 
negatively impact meadows and brood-rearing habitats used by the Bi-
State DPS (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 92).
    The effectiveness of these grazing and rangeland management 
conservation efforts are confirmed by published literature (Boyd et al. 
2014, entire; Stevens et al. 2012, p. 301; Davies et al. 2011, pp. 
2575-2576; Pyke 2011, p. 537), which articulate the value of 
maintaining functional working landscapes that include grazing 
activities with site-specific management as necessary (e.g., restoring 
meadows to improve sage-grouse brood-rearing habitat) to ensure 
longevity of sagebrush ecosystems and the habitat areas deemed most 
critical to the Bi-State DPS.
    (3) Nonnative Invasive Plants and Native Woodland Succession--
Because both nonnative invasive plants and particularly native woodland 
species (pinyon-juniper encroachment) displace the sagebrush ecosystem 
necessary for the Bi-State DPS, significant conservation efforts are 
being and will continue to be implemented to address these problems. 
With regard to nonnative invasive plants, the Bi-State EOC and TAC 
recognize that effective control programs can be labor intensive and 
costly; however, the Bi-State EOC and TAC believes there is value for 
the Bi-State DPS in being strategic in implementing the conservation 
efforts that potentially reduce the impact these plants have on the 
DPS's habitat (e.g., treating nonnative, invasive plants in strategic 
areas to potentially reduce the likelihood of an outbreak or improve a 
priority habitat area) (Espinosa 2014, in litt.). Since 2012, chemical 
or mechanical treatments of nonnative plant species have occurred on 
nearly 526 ha (1,300 ac), and weed monitoring was completed on 858 ha 
(2,121 ac) across multiple PMUs (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 30). Two 
projects are currently under way or planned for the future that target 
invasive, nonnative plants on more than 243 ha (600 ac) in the Desert 
Creek-Fales and Pine Nut PMUs (cheatgrass is considered a high threat 
in Pine Nut compared to other PMUs). Additionally, the USFS committed 
to control least 40.5 ha (100 ac) of cheatgrass each year from 2015 
through 2024 in the Pine Nut PMU (USDA 2014, in litt.). While 
combatting invasive annual grasses remains a challenge, the most 
effective method to date is through the retention of a healthy native 
perennial understory, which is the primary objective of both the TAC 
and LAWG (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 30). Methods of active restoration of 
degraded sites can be effective through herbicide or mechanical means 
but require additional actions such as reseeding with perennial species 
(Frost and Launchbaugh 2003, pp. 43-44; Jones et al. 2015, p. 17).
    With regard to pinyon-juniper encroachment, ecologists have 
developed clear and effective recommendations to target appropriate 
phases of encroachment (specific age and density structure) to ensure 
restoration occurs in sagebrush and sage-grouse habitat areas that are 
most meaningful (e.g., critical brood-rearing habitat, corridors in 
fragmented areas) (e.g., Bates et al. 2011, pp. 476-479; Davies et al. 
2011, pp. 2577-2578). Accordingly, BLM, USFS, and NRCS are 
strategically targeting phases I and II pinyon-juniper encroachment in 
the Bi-State area, which is supported by literature as effective with 
careful planning and execution (e.g., Bates et al. 2011, pp. 476-479; 
Davies et al. 2011, pp. 2577-2578). As of December 2018, pinyon and 
juniper removal has taken place on more than 18,700 ha (46,400 ac) 
within or adjacent to sage-grouse habitat, including minor projects to 
remove phase I tree encroachment from nesting habitat to more intensive 
mechanical removal within both phase I and phase II areas to expand 
available sage-grouse habitat and enhance existing conditions within 
nesting, brood-rearing, and winter habitats, representing approximately 
25 percent of all conifer treatments proposed in the 2012 Action Plan 
(Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 27.). Furthermore, conifer treatment maintenance 
has been completed on more than 3,000 ha (7,400 ac). Approximately 
8,245 ha (20,373 ac) of additional conifer treatments are currently in 
progress and have analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act 
(NEPA) either completed or under development (Bi-State TAC 2018, in 
litt.).
    Subsequent to our prior withdrawal of the 2013 proposed listing 
rule, several studies have been published that demonstrate the 
effectiveness of pinyon-juniper removal across the range of the greater 
sage-grouse. These studies have demonstrated that: Sage-grouse readily 
nest in conifer treatment sites after trees had been removed (Severson 
et al. 2017, p. 53); woodland treatments increased suitable available 
breeding habitat and enhanced nest and brood success (Sandford et al. 
2017, p. 63); and removal of pinyon-juniper trees encroaching into 
sagebrush vegetation communities can increase sage-grouse population 
growth through improving juvenile, yearling, and adult survival as well 
as improving nest survival (Olsen 2019, pp. 21-22). Additionally, sage-
grouse population growth was 11.2 percent higher in treatment versus 
control sites within 5 years of conifer removal (Olsen 2019, pp. 21-
22). Thus, we conclude that pinyon-juniper removal is effective in 
restoring areas impacted by woodland succession such that they become 
suitable and productive for sage-grouse, reducing the magnitude of the 
threat on the species.
    (4) Infrastructure--Conservation efforts to reduce infrastructure 
are focused on roads, power lines, fencing, and a landfill. Permanent 
and seasonal road closures over a minimum of 2,137 miles in the Bodie, 
Desert Creek-Fales, Mount Grant, South Mono, and Pine Nut PMUs will 
reduce the likelihood of mortality and improve vital rates for sage-
grouse near leks, including nesting and brood-rearing areas. Nearly 22 
miles

[[Page 18085]]

of power line and fencing removal projects have occurred in the Bodie, 
Pine Nut, and South Mono PMUs, and approximately 141 miles of fencing 
have been marked or modified across all PMUS. Some of these projects 
require annual maintenance, such as let-down fences, and three projects 
that will mark and modify fencing in the Pine Nut, Desert Creek-Fales, 
or South Mono PMUs are scheduled to be completed in the future. 
Additionally, a landfill in the Long Valley area of the South Mono PMU 
is a significant source of predators for one of the two core 
populations of the Bi-State DPS; Mono County is undergoing the initial 
stages of relocating this landfill (Bi-State TAC 2014, in litt.; Mono 
County 2014, in litt.: Mono County 2018, in litt.).
    Removing or modifying the types of infrastructure described above 
will be effective at reducing the amount of invasive plants present 
along or around developed areas (Manier et al. 2014, pp. 167-170), 
reducing existing habitat fragmentation and potential vectors for 
invasive plants (Gelbard and Belnap 2003, pp. 424-431); removing some 
edge effects that can lead to avoidance of nesting in suitable habitat 
areas (Aldridge and Boyce 2007, pp. 516-523); reducing or removing 
anthropogenic noise that disturbs normal behavior patterns of sage-
grouse (Blickley 2013, pp. 54-65); reducing collision-related 
mortalities (associated specifically with fencing) (Stevens et al. 
2012, pp. 299-302); and making currently undesirable habitat areas 
(that attract predators) favorable by sage-grouse as nest and brood 
sites by reducing predator attractants (e.g., power lines, landfill) 
(Dinkins et al. 2012, pp. 605-608).
    (5) Wildfire--Fires have consumed some important habitat areas 
within the range of the Bi-State DPS, primarily within the Pine Nut 
PMU, but also recently as a result of the Spring Peak fire within the 
Bodie and Mount Grant PMUs and the Boot Fire in the Desert Creek-Fales 
PMU (Espinosa 2014, in litt.: Service 2020, p. 26). Site restoration 
activities are planned to be implemented following wildfires by 
utilizing the CPT to identify sites that are the best candidates for 
enhancing or returning sagebrush habitats to conditions that benefit 
sage-grouse (Espinosa 2014, in litt.). Restoration efforts will be 
tracked for success, noting that some actions (e.g., seeding) vary in 
success rate, given variables such as elevation, precipitation, and 
site-conditions prior to a fire (Espinosa 2014, in litt.). Recovery of 
functional sagebrush habitats following wildfire and restoration 
actions can take decades (potentially several sage-grouse generations) 
to be realized, and requires monitoring to assure conservation 
objectives are met (such as ensuring appropriate levels of sagebrush 
and native herbs are established, and reducing nonnative plant 
dominance) (Arkle et al. 2014, p. 17). Additionally, the Bi-State TAC 
currently utilizes the CPT and field reconnaissance to maximize the 
likelihood of enhancing the desired sagebrush community composition 
post-fuels reduction treatment activities (Espinosa 2014, in litt.). As 
of December 2018, restoration following wildfire has resulted in fire 
rehabilitation treatments on more than 7,690 ha (19,000 ac) (Bi-State 
TAC 2018, in litt.).
    (6) Small Population Size and Population Structure--The BSAP 
specifically identifies a strategy (MER7) to address small population 
size issues in the Bi-State area, by identifying potential sage-grouse 
population augmentation and reintroduction sites, developing 
translocation guidelines, and potentially implementing augmentation and 
reintroduction efforts (Bi-State TAC 2012, p. 93). Specific actions 
include developing contingency plans for the Parker Meadows and Gaspipe 
Spring subpopulations in the South Mono PMU, and populations in the 
Pine Nut PMU; and evaluating the need for augmentation for the Fales 
population of the Desert Creek-Fales PMU, the Powell Mountain area of 
the Mount Grant PMU, the McBride Flat/Sagehen Spring area in the Truman 
Meadows portion of the White Mountains PMU, and Coyote Flat of the 
South Mono PMU.
    In 2016, CDFW began implementing a plan to translocate sage-grouse 
from stable subpopulations in the Bi-State area to the Parker Meadows 
subpopulation in the South Mono PMU (Bi-State TAC 2014, in litt.; CDFW 
2014b, in litt.; Mathews et al. 2018, pp. 14-34). Prior to initiating 
this effort, members of the Bi-State TAC conducted a site visit to 
assess habitat condition and conducted removal of conifer trees that 
had become established in proximity to the lek and brood-rearing 
meadow. Preliminary results suggest that translocated birds are 
increasingly remaining in the Parker Meadows area. Additionally, 
probability of nest initiation and nest success have increased, brood 
success is on par with the remainder of the DPS, and lek counts have 
increased over the past two years (Bi-State TAC 2018, pp. 13-14; 
Mathews et al. 2018, pp. 28-34). Efforts on this current action are 
directly relevant to future conservation efforts for other unstable 
subpopulations. It is reasonable to assume future translocations in the 
Bi-State area have a high likelihood of effectiveness given continued 
careful consideration to all the variables (including translocation 
that would occur concurrent with other threat reduction activities, 
such as conifer removal or predator control), and published literature 
that also indicates success of translocated sage-grouse when successful 
translocation methodology is followed (Musil et al. 1993, pp. 89-90; 
Reese and Connelly 1997, pp. 239-240; Hennefer 2007, pp. 33-37; Baxter 
et al. 2008, pp. 184-185).
    For details of additional conservation efforts related to effects 
associated with climate change, disease, predation, and other threats, 
please see the full PECE analysis (Service 2019, entire).
    We will have an ongoing role in monitoring the implementation and 
effectiveness of the partially completed and future conservation 
efforts given our regular participation with the Bi-State EOC, TAC, and 
LAWG, participation in providing updated versions of the BSAP, and by 
reviewing any monitoring and research reports. We are satisfied that 
the conservation efforts evaluated will be effective in reducing 
threats to the Bi-State DPS and its habitat; however, to do so, they do 
not need to be applied on every acre of suitable and unsuitable sage-
grouse habitat. For instance, not all of the native pinyon-juniper 
vegetation needs to be removed, such as in areas within the range of 
the Bi-State DPS where pinyon-juniper historically occurred. Rather the 
effort needs, and is expected, to be implemented in areas that are most 
likely to support sage-grouse (post-removal) and critical areas that 
address habitat fragmentation or reduced-connectivity issues. These 
efforts need to occur at a rate that significantly reduces further 
habitat losses, which is consistent with the objective to address 
pinyon-juniper expansion provided in the March 22, 2013, COT Report for 
conservation of the greater sage-grouse (Service 2013a, pp. 47-48), 
including the Bi-State DPS.
    We have determined that the agencies' resource commitments (e.g., 
staffing and funding, including more than $45 million from 2015 through 
2024), and a demonstrated record of implementation will ensure 
continued conservation of habitat for the Bi-State DPS. The BSAP has 
sufficient monitoring and reporting requirements to ensure that the 
proposed future conservation measures are implemented as planned and 
are effective at removing threats to the DPS and its habitat. The 
collaboration between the Service, BLM, USFS, NRCS, Mono County, USGS, 
and

[[Page 18086]]

the States of Nevada and California requires regular team meetings (Bi-
State EOC, TAC, and EOC), and continued involvement of all parties will 
occur (Bi-State EOC 2014, in litt.) in order to implement the BSAP 
fully. We find that the future conservation efforts in the BSAP meet 
the PECE criteria for certainty of implementation and effectiveness, 
and can be considered as part of the basis for our final listing 
determination for the Bi-State DPS.
    In conclusion, we find that the conservation efforts in the BSAP, 
and as outlined in the agencies' 2014, 2018, and 2019 commitment 
letters, meet the PECE criteria with regard to certainty of 
implementation (for those measures not already implemented) and 
effectiveness and can be considered as part of the basis for our 
listing determination for the Bi-State DPS. Our full analysis of the 
2012 BSAP, and additional materials submitted to the Service as 
mentioned above, pursuant to PECE can be found at http://www.regulations.gov under either Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0106 or 
Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2018-0107.

Summary of Comments and Recommendations

    As discussed above in Previous Federal Actions, the Bi-State DPS of 
the greater sage-grouse has a long and complex listing history. This 
has included multiple public comment periods since the proposed rules 
were published on October 28, 2013 (78 FR 64328, 78 FR 64358). In the 
period 2013-2015, we published five documents announcing to the public 
new comment periods, extensions to the comment periods, new information 
that became available, and a 6-month extension of making the final 
listing determination (78 FR 77087, December 20, 2013; 79 FR 19314, 
April 8, 2014; 79 FR 26684, May 9, 2014; 79 FR 31901, June 3, 2014; and 
79 FR 45420, August 5, 2014). We held one public hearing in Minden, 
Nevada, on May 28, 2014, and one public hearing held in Bishop, 
California, on May 29, 2014. Newspaper notices inviting general public 
comment and advertisement of the information and public hearings was 
published in The Inyo Register, The Record Courier, and the Reno-
Gazette Journal.
    When we reinstated the proposed listing rule on April 11, 2019, we 
reopened the comment period for 60 days (84 FR 14909); the comment 
period opened on April 12, 2019, and closed on June 11, 2019. When we 
announced the 6-month extension on October 1, 2019 (84 FR 52058), we 
reopened the public comment period for an additional 30 days; the 
comment period closed on October 31, 2019. In all comment periods, we 
also contacted appropriate Federal and State agencies, Tribes, 
scientific experts and organizations, and other interested parties and 
invited them to comment on the proposal. We did not receive any 
requests for further public hearings.
    Between 2013 and 2015, we received more than 6,400 public comments 
on the proposed rules. In 2019, we have received more than 2,600 public 
comments in response to the reinstatement of the proposed rules and the 
6-month extension. Submitted comments were both for and against listing 
the species. All substantive information provided during the comment 
periods and relevant to this finding has either been incorporated 
directly into this withdrawal or is addressed below. For additional 
responses to comments for which there is no updated information since 
2015, please see the previous withdrawal of the proposed listing rule 
published on April 23, 2015 (80 FR 22828).
    We also received a few comments related to the proposed 4(d) rule, 
and more than 200 comment letters both in support of and opposition to 
the proposed critical habitat designation; however, given the decision 
to withdraw the listing proposal, no further assessment of the proposed 
4(d) rule and critical habitat designation is necessary at this time.
    (1) Comment: Several commenters inquired as to how the BLM RMPs, 
USFS LRMPs, the BSAP, and the plans developed by the LADWP are used in 
our evaluation of existing regulatory mechanisms. Commenters also 
questioned the effectiveness of these plans and of the effectiveness of 
regulatory mechanisms in general. Other commenters suggested that 
existing regulatory mechanisms are adequate.
    Our Response: Existing regulatory mechanisms that could provide 
some protection for greater sage-grouse in the Bi-State area include: 
(1) Local land use laws, processes, and ordinances; (2) State laws and 
regulations; and (3) Federal laws and regulations. Regulatory 
mechanisms, if they exist, may preclude the need for listing if such 
mechanisms are judged to adequately address the threats to the species 
such that listing is not warranted. Conversely, threats on the 
landscape continue to affect the species and may be exacerbated when 
not addressed by existing regulatory mechanisms, or when the existing 
mechanisms are not adequate (or not adequately implemented or 
enforced).
    We use an inherently qualitative approach to evaluate existing 
regulatory mechanisms when conducting a threats analysis for a proposed 
listing. In general, this means that we assess language in an existing 
mechanism/plan as well as any pertinent decisions instituted based on 
that language (track record) and evaluate it against the best available 
science informing species conservation. For the local land use 
regulatory mechanisms, the regulations in some counties identify the 
need for natural resource conservation and in some instances (such as 
Mono County) attempt to minimize impacts of development through zoning 
restrictions. To our knowledge, however, none preclude development, nor 
do they provide for monitoring of the loss of sage-grouse habitats. 
Similarly, State laws and regulations are general in nature and provide 
flexibility in implementation, and do not provide specific direction to 
State wildlife agencies, although they can occasionally afford 
regulatory authority over habitat preservation (e.g., creation of 
habitat easements and land acquisitions).
    With respect to Federal laws, we note that recent LRMP and RMP 
amendments adopted by the Humboldt-Toiyabe and Inyo National Forests 
and BLM's Carson City District and Tonopah Field Office in the Bi-State 
area appear to offer significant improved certainty toward sage-grouse 
conservation. These changes in conjunction with existing RMPs and 
LRMPs, with demonstrated track records of effectiveness (such as the 
BLM Bishop Field Office's RMP), supports a conclusion that currently 
existing Federal regulations are effective regulatory mechanisms. 
Federally managed lands account for approximately 89 percent of the Bi-
State DPS habitat. Additionally, we note that recent changes to RMPs 
and LRMPs associated with greater sage-grouse conservation across its 
range in the western United States do not apply to the Bi-State DPS. 
For additional detail see the Existing Regulatory Mechanisms section in 
the 2019 Species Report.
    Since the proposed rule, we received additional information on 
Federal regulatory mechanisms. Jointly, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National 
Forest and the Carson City and Tonopah Offices of the BLM have 
developed new Land Use Plan Amendments (HTNF 2016, entire; BLM 2016, 
entire). The amendments more fully address conservation of the Bi-State 
area by providing specific direction to management of the DPS and its 
habitat, including (but not limited to) direct effects (such as land 
disturbance) and indirect effects (such as noise) caused by management 
of: Recreation, grazing, weeds, wild horses and burros, minerals, fire 
management, and rights-

[[Page 18087]]

of-way. Furthermore in 2019, the Inyo National Forest completed a 
revised Land Management Plan, which also improves management 
consideration of sage-grouse conservation (USFS 2019, entire). For 
additional discussion on existing regulatory mechanisms and our 
conservation efforts analysis, see discussions in Summary of Factors 
Affecting the Species and the Existing Regulatory Mechanisms and 
Conservation Efforts sections in the 2019 Species Report (Service 2020, 
pp. 124-147).
    Therefore, we conclude that the BLM and USFS Land Use Plan 
amendments will limit future additional impacts caused by discretionary 
actions, thus greatly enhancing the conservation afforded to the Bi-
State DPS and its habitat.
    The 2012 BSAP is not a regulatory mechanism. As such, we have 
evaluated it through our PECE policy, as described in Policy for 
Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, 
above. Since we have concluded that it is sufficiently certain to be 
both implemented and effective, we have considered how the measures 
included in the plan are ameliorating the magnitude of threats. The 
LADWP plans are also not regulatory mechanisms, and we have evaluated 
them as an existing and ongoing conservation measure.
    (2) Comment: Several commenters stated that conservation efforts to 
date have not been adequate, as threats remain on the landscape.
    Our Response: While considerable effort has been expended over the 
past several years to address some of the known threats throughout 
portions or all of the Bi-State DPS's estimated occupied range, threats 
to the continued viability of the DPS into the future remain. The 
development of the 2012 BSAP (Bi-State TAC 2012, entire) has 
highlighted the importance of not only habitat restoration and 
enhancement but also the role of the States and other partners in 
reducing many of the known threats to the Bi-State DPS. Cooperative, 
committed efforts by Federal and State agencies, as well as Mono County 
will result in full implementation of the 2012 BSAP, including funding 
and staffing commitments from 2015 through 2024 to address the most 
significant impacts to the DPS and its habitat (BLM 2014a, in litt.; 
BLM 2019, in litt.; CDFW 2014b, in litt.; Mono County 2014, in litt.; 
Mono County 2018, in litt.; NDOW 2014, in litt.; NDOW 2018, in litt.; 
NRCS 2018, in litt.; USDA 2014, in litt.; USFS 2018, in litt.; USGS 
2014a, in litt.). Such plans will help provide the ongoing, targeted 
implementation of effective conservation actions that are essential for 
the conservation of the Bi-State DPS and its habitat into the future. 
We discuss the various conservation efforts occurring currently and 
into the future within the estimated occupied range of the Bi-State DPS 
of greater sage-grouse in more detail in the detailed PECE analysis 
(Service 2019, entire) under Policy for Evaluation of Conservation 
Efforts When Making Listing Decisions.
    (3) Comment: A few commenters suggest that the Bi-State DPS is not 
a genetically unique subspecies or that it does not meet our standard 
for recognition as a DPS.
    Our Response: In our 12-month finding on petitions to list three 
entities of sage-grouse (75 FR 13910, March 23, 2010), we found that 
the Bi-State population of sage-grouse meets our criteria as a DPS of 
the greater sage-grouse under Service policy (61 FR 4722, February 7, 
1996). This determination was based principally on genetic information, 
where the DPS was found to be both markedly separated and significant 
to the remainder of the sage-grouse taxon. The Bi-State DPS defines the 
far southwestern limit of the species' range along the border of 
eastern California and western Nevada (Stiver et al. 2006, pp. 1-11). 
Sage-grouse in the Bi-State area contain a large number of unique 
genetic haplotypes not found elsewhere within the range of the species 
(Benedict et al. 2003, p. 306; Oyler-McCance et al. 2005, p. 1300; 
Oyler-McCance and Quinn 2011, p. 92, Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 7). 
The genetic diversity present in the Bi-State area population is 
comparable to other populations, suggesting that the differences are 
not due to a genetic bottleneck or founder event (Oyler-McCance and 
Quinn 2011, p. 91; Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 8). These studies 
provide evidence that the present genetic uniqueness exhibited by Bi-
State area sage-grouse developed over thousands and perhaps tens of 
thousands of years, hence, prior to the Euro-American settlement 
(Benedict et al. 2003, p. 308; Oyler-McCance et al. 2005, p. 1307; 
Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 9). The available genetic information 
demonstrates that the Bi-State sage-grouse are both discrete from other 
greater sage-grouse populations and are genetically unique. Therefore, 
we believe the best scientific and commercial data available continues 
to clearly demonstrate that the Bi-State sage-grouse meet both the 
discreteness and significance criteria to be designated as a distinct 
population segment.
    (4) Comment: Several commenters stated that the 2013 proposed 
listing rule dismissed past conservation measures without fairly 
addressing their breadth, effectiveness, and chance of success. 
Further, they submit that the Service must evaluate the conservation 
measures through (at minimum) an analysis consistent with PECE and must 
fully consider how conservation measures will reduce or remove threats. 
The commenters believe that a fair evaluation of the past conservation 
efforts would demonstrate that they are sufficient to protect the Bi-
State DPS.
    Alternatively, several commenters argue that past conservation 
efforts, while well-intended, have been inadequate to provide 
sufficient conservation for the DPS. Further, the commenters contend 
that the 2012 BSAP is voluntary in nature and does not meet the PECE 
standard, and that populations have continued to decline since the 
implementation of the BSAP.
    Our Response: In this finding, we acknowledge and commend the 
commitment of many partners in implementing numerous conservation 
actions within the range of the Bi-State DPS. The PECE policy applies 
to formalized conservation efforts that have not yet been implemented 
or those that have been implemented but have not yet demonstrated 
whether they are effective at the time of listing. Our analysis of all 
conservation efforts currently in place and under development for the 
future is described in detail above in Policy for Evaluation of 
Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions. The effect of 
conservation efforts and regulatory mechanisms on the status of a 
species is considered under Summary of Biological Status and Threats.
    In this document, we considered whether formalized conservation 
efforts such as the BSAP are included as part of the baseline through 
the analysis of the five listing factors or are appropriate for 
consideration under our PECE policy. All participating agencies have 
provided letters affirming their commitment to the plan, as well as 
funding and implementation schedules (Service 2019, entire). Due to 
these and other considerations as outlined in our detailed PECE 
analysis, we concluded that the 2012 BSAP is highly certain to be 
implemented.
    We acknowledge that the most recent population studies show that 
some sage-grouse populations in the Bi-State DPS have declined (Coates 
et al. 2020, Table 3). However, the Bi-State DPS as a whole is showing 
a stable, long-term trend. Conservation measures are in place to 
counter negative population growth (such as the Parker Meadows 
translocation project). Currently, 53 of

[[Page 18088]]

the 76 high-priority projects have been initiated representing 68 
percent of the projects originally identified (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 
3). Twelve projects (17 percent) were evaluated and determined to lie 
outside of occupied sage-grouse habitat and were subsequently removed 
from the list of priorities. Furthermore, 142 of the 159 identified 
actions in the BSAP have been initiated and are in stages of 
completion, meaning they are in progress, ongoing, occur annually, or 
have been evaluated as part of the planning process (Bi-State TAC 2018, 
p. 45; Service 2019, p. 33). Given that these measures are still 
ongoing, we do not expect that positive gains from these measures would 
yet be reflected in population studies.
    Overall, due to many factors as outlined in our detailed PECE 
analysis, we concluded that future conservation measures are highly 
certain to be effective in ameliorating the threats currently impacting 
the Bi-State DPS. Therefore, we find the Bi-State DPS is not in danger 
of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its 
range, and is not likely to become endangered within the foreseeable 
future (threatened), throughout all or a significant portion of its 
range, and we are withdrawing the proposed listing, 4(d), and critical 
habitat rules for the Bi-State DPS (see Determination of Status for the 
Bi-State DPS below).
    (5) Comment: Numerous commenters suggested that predators are a 
significant threat and that we did not account for this impact 
accurately. Further, many commenters suggested predator removal 
programs should be implemented. Alternatively, several commenters 
suggested that predator control is not sustainable and may have 
negative and unintended consequences.
    Our Response: As discussed in Predation, we recognize that 
predation of sage-grouse is the most commonly identified cause of 
direct mortality during all life stages. However, we note that sage-
grouse have coevolved with a suite of predators (Schroeder et al. 1999, 
pp. 9-10), yet the species has persisted. Thus, this form of mortality 
is apparently offset by other aspects of the species life-history under 
``normal'' conditions. However, when non-endemic predators are 
introduced into a system (one with which the prey species did not 
evolve (e.g., domestic cats and dogs)), or when other factors influence 
the balance between endemic predator and prey interactions, such that a 
predator gains a competitive advantage, predation may overwhelm a prey 
species life-history strategy and ultimately influence population 
growth and persistence (Braun 1998, pp. 145-146; Holloran 2005, p. 58; 
Coates 2007, p. 155; Bui 2009, p. 2; Coates and Delehanty 2010, p. 243; 
Howe et al. 2014, p. 41). Therefore, we agree that increases in sage-
grouse predator abundance and predation rates are a concern by 
potentially negatively affecting population growth. However, we 
maintain that predation is a proximal cause of mortality and increases 
in predator abundance and predation rates are ultimately caused by 
changes in habitat conditions, which positively influence predator 
occurrence or efficiency. See also the Urbanization and Habitat 
Conversion, Infrastructure, and Predation sections in the associated 
Species Report for a detailed analysis on the impacts of predation 
(Service 2020, pp. 39-60, 110-117).
    As a point of clarification, we agree that targeted, short-term 
predator removal programs may be warranted in instances where habitat 
restoration cannot be achieved in a timely manner. In these instances, 
predation rates and predator abundance may be artificially high and 
high sage-grouse mortality may be a concern. However, data do not 
appear to suggest that removal programs are sustainable or that they 
result in consistent increases in sage-grouse numbers (Hagen 2011, pp. 
98-99). We intend to explore the potential benefits and negative 
ramifications caused by predator control through our continued 
coordination efforts with the Bi-State TAC and LAWG for continued 
conservation of the Bi-State DPS. In 2018, a research project was 
initiated to explore the potential benefits gained through predator 
management. Specifically, this project targeted nesting common ravens 
in Long Valley associated with the local landfill through egg-oiling to 
prevent successful egg hatching. While final results will not be known 
for several years, preliminary results suggest improved nesting success 
of sage-grouse in Long Valley in the spring of 2019.
    (6) Comment: Numerous commenters suggested that the degree of 
impact we assign to specific threat factors is not accurate and 
suggested revisions. Further, several commenters identified an 
inconsistency in our proposed listing rule associated with our 
assignment of significance level to grazing and rangeland management.
    Our Response: The threats analysis and associated discussion of the 
degree of impact that is described in the Species Report (2013, 2014, 
and 2019 versions), our 2013 proposed listing rule, our 2015 proposed 
withdrawal, and this document are based upon the best available 
scientific and commercial information. No additional information or 
assessments were provided by the commenters to support their claim that 
the analysis and conclusions in our proposed listing rule were 
inaccurate. However, where applicable in our revised 2019 Species 
Report and this document, we have updated our threats analyses based on 
new information received since the proposed listing rule published on 
October 28, 2013 (78 FR 64358). With regard to potential 
inconsistencies in the threats analysis in the proposed rule, we made 
corrections to any inconsistencies identified by commenters and as 
applicable in both the revised 2019 Species Report and this document.
    Specifically, our 2013 proposed listing rule identified livestock 
grazing as a significant threat in the summary of threats section but 
did not reach this conclusion in the livestock grazing section of the 
document. We have corrected that error in this finding.
    (7) Comment: One commenter suggested that the potential threat to 
sage-grouse posed by fencing can be mitigated. Alternatively, another 
commenter stated that fencing is a major threat and expressed concern 
that there are no programs in place to require fencing to be removed.
    Our Response: We agree that certain practices, such as making 
fences more visible to sage-grouse through the use of visual markers or 
employing the use of alternative fence designs, such as let-down 
fencing, can reduce certain impacts to the Bi-State DPS caused by 
fencing, specifically collision. However, we do not anticipate that 
these efforts will completely ameliorate the threat of collision. For 
example, one study found that marking fences reduced the fence 
collision rate during the sage-grouse breeding season by 83 percent 
(Stevens et al. 2012, p. 301). Nevertheless, collisions still occurred 
at marked fences, especially those in close proximity to spring 
breeding sites, suggesting marking alone did not completely resolve the 
concern. Furthermore, while direct mortality through collision may be 
minimized by these approaches, indirect impacts caused by predation and 
other forms of habitat degradation may remain (see the discussion of 
impacts due to fences under Infrastructure above and in the 2019 
Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 54-57)). Therefore, a combination of 
approaches to managing fences and their impacts needs to be applied, 
which may include removal. These efforts are currently ongoing in the 
Bi-State area (Bi-State TAC 2018, p. 33).
    With regard to the comment that fencing may be considered a major 
threat, we have described the impacts

[[Page 18089]]

that may occur from fencing based on the best scientific and commercial 
information available. We found that fencing impacts are widespread but 
generally minor. In addition, management actions are being undertaken 
to further ameliorate this threat. For example, approximately 20 km (13 
mi) of fencing has been removed or modified in the Bi-State area, and 
approximately 101 km (63 mi) of fencing has been marked with visual 
flight diverters. Furthermore, the BLM RMP and USFS LRMP amendments 
prepared by the Humboldt-Toiyabe and Inyo National Forests, and the 
Carson City District and Tonopah Field Office of the BLM, specifically 
identify restrictions on new fence installation and removal or marking 
of fences already in place within 1.9-3.2 km (1.2-2 mi) of an active 
lek.
    The removal of fencing throughout all of the Bi-State area is not 
feasible. However, consideration of alternative approaches to 
traditional fencing would help reduce impacts of fencing to sage-grouse 
(for example, use of let-down fence designs), and we will continue to 
work with partners to encourage implementation of reduced or 
alternative approaches to fencing in areas that are most important to 
the Bi-State DPS. Conservation efforts are under way currently and into 
the future to reduce fencing impacts in priority areas (e.g., BLM's 
removal of racetrack fencing in Bodie PMU, marking or modifying fencing 
in Pine Nut and South Mono PMUs) (Bi-State TAC 2018, entire).
    (8) Comment: A few commenters suggested woodlands and woodland 
expansion is natural and should be left alone. Specifically, commenters 
speculated that forest occurrence is a reestablishment of sites that 
were harvested during historic mining in the latter part of the 1800s 
or that woodlands are naturally occurring. Further, the commenters 
suggested that woodland treatments are not effective at positively 
influencing sage-grouse population performance.
    Our Response: Across the Bi-State area, we estimate that 
approximately 40 percent of the historically available sagebrush 
habitat has been usurped by woodland succession over the past 150 years 
(USGS 2012, unpublished data). As described in the 2019 Species Report 
(Service 2020, pp. 73-79) and in Nonnative Invasive Plants and Native 
Woodland Succession, the cause of this increase is likely multifaceted 
but most certainly includes recovery from past disturbances such as 
mining. However, the support for this single mechanism is not apparent. 
For example, while there are locations within the Bi-State area where 
there are stumps from harvested trees attributable to the mining era, 
most locations do not contain evidence of past tree cutting. 
Furthermore, genetic evidence suggests that sage-grouse populations 
contained within the Bi-State area were historically more connected and 
that these connections began to erode relatively recently (Oyler-
McCance et al. 2014, pp. 10-11). This finding suggests that barriers to 
movement, such as trees, were less restrictive historically as compared 
to today. No additional information was received by the commenter or 
others since the proposed listing rule published that would modify our 
understanding of this threat. Therefore, based on the best available 
information, we conclude that woodland expansion is a significant 
threat in the Bi-State area as it has reduced habitat availability and 
negatively influenced population connectivity. As a result, 
conservation efforts are under way currently and into the future to 
reduce potential woodland succession impacts in priority areas (e.g., 
BLM, USFS, and NRCS treatments of phase I and II pinyon-juniper 
encroachment in all six PMUs) (phases of pinyon-juniper encroachment 
are generally defined by percent tree cover and tree age in the 
affected area) (Miller et al. 2008, p. 5; Bi-State TAC 2018, pp. 26-
29).
    Ultimately, the cause of woodland encroachment becomes less 
relevant in light of its implications as the response to tree presence 
by sage-grouse is uniformly negative (Commons et al. 1999, p. 238; 
Doherty et al. 2008, p. 187; Freese 2009, pp. 84-85, 89-90; Casazza et 
al. 2011, p. 159; Baruch-Mordo et al. 2013, p. 237; Prochazka et al. 
2017, p. 46). Therefore, to reduce this impact on the Bi-State DPS and 
its habitat, as described in the BSAP, land managers should consider 
management of pinyon-juniper encroachment in specific areas that would 
most benefit the Bi-State DPS (e.g., lek sites, migration corridors, 
and brood-rearing habitat) and that is consistent with our 
understanding of a specific site's vegetation potential. The removal of 
trees conveys positive benefits to sage-grouse stemming from increased 
habitat availability, increased adult and nest survival, and ultimately 
overall improved population performance (Coates et al. 2017b, pp. 31-
33; Sandford et al. 2017, p. 63; Severson et al. 2017, p. 53; Prochazka 
et al. 2017, p. 46; Olsen 2019, pp. 21-22).
    (9) Comment: Several commenters suggest that fire is the most 
significant threat to the Bi-State DPS and that post-fire restoration 
is difficult. Alternatively, several other commenters suggest that fire 
is a natural process and does not constitute a complete loss of habitat 
for the Bi-State DPS because sage-grouse will use burned areas.
    Our Response: In the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 79-86) and 
in Wildfires and Altered Fire Regime, we address potential habitat 
changes that may be related to wildland fires and post-fire restoration 
activities. We agree that fire is a natural process on the landscape 
within the Bi-State area; however, we also note that we found that the 
``too-little'' and ``too-much'' fire scenarios present challenges for 
the Bi-State DPS. In other words, in some locations, the lack of fire 
has facilitated the expansion of woodlands, especially into montane 
shrub communities. In other locations, recent fires have been followed 
by invasive-weed establishment facilitating a reoccurring fire cycle 
that restricts sagebrush restoration. These scenarios present 
challenges for the species. Still, although fires have occurred across 
the range of the Bi-State DPS historically and recently, we acknowledge 
that a sufficient amount of suitable habitat remains for sage-grouse 
use. Some of this remaining suitable habitat is threatened by 
additional fire because of adjacent invasive annual plants and woodland 
establishment, which can influence the frequency and intensity of 
future fire events. Further, impacts to remaining sagebrush habitat may 
be exacerbated due to interactions with other threats that are acting 
in the Bi-State area (see Summary of Threats). As a result of these 
impacts, conservation efforts are under way currently and into the 
future to reduce impacts associated with nonnative, invasive plants 
(e.g., multiple BLM and USFS invasive weed management treatments in 
multiple PMUs), and woodland succession (e.g., BLM, USFS, and NRCS 
treatments of phase I and II pinyon-juniper encroachment in all six 
PMUs) (Bi-State TAC 2014, in litt.).
    Additionally, while short-term (and potentially long-term) impacts 
from fire events to sage-grouse are known to occur, including but not 
limited to habitat loss and population declines (Beck et al. 2012, p. 
452; Knick et al. 2011, p. 233; Wisdom et al. 2011, p. 469), we agree 
that some information suggests sage-grouse use of burned habitat. Small 
fires may maintain a suitable habitat mosaic by reducing shrub 
encroachment and encouraging understory growth. However, without 
available nearby sagebrush cover, the broad utility of these sites is 
questionable (Woodward 2006, p. 65). For example, sage-grouse using 
burned areas were rarely found more than 60 m

[[Page 18090]]

(200 ft) from the edge of the burn and may preferentially use the 
burned and unburned edge habitat (Slater 2003, p. 63).
    We recognize that fire is natural and the primary disturbance 
mechanism in the sagebrush ecosystem. We also recognize that sage-
grouse will selectively utilize portions of burned habitat. However, 
the challenge that wildfire presents to the sustainability of the 
system remains, especially given the relatively limited and fragmented 
suitable sagebrush habitat present in the Bi-State area. Still, land 
managers within the range of the Bi-State DPS are currently 
implementing and will continue to implement conservation efforts into 
the future that are expected to reduce the potential impacts of 
wildfire as it relates to nonnative, invasive plants and pinyon-juniper 
encroachment (Bi-State TAC 2018, pp. 22-23).
    (10) Comment: Several commenters suggested that climate change 
poses a significant impact to the Bi-State DPS and its habitat, 
including one commenter that stated we underestimated the impact that 
climate change and drought may have on the DPS.
    Our Response: In the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 86-94) and 
in Climate, we address potential impacts associated with climate 
change. We found that projected climate change and its associated 
consequences have the potential to affect sage-grouse and sagebrush 
habitat in the Bi-State area. The impacts of climate change interact 
with other stressors such as disease, invasive species, prey 
availability, moisture, vegetation community dynamics, disturbance 
regimes, and other habitat degradations and loss that are already 
affecting the species (Strzepek et al. 2010, p. 5; Walker and Naugle 
2011, entire; Finch 2012, pp. 60, 80; IPCC 2014, p. 60; Ault et al. 
2014, p. 7545; Garfin et al. 2014, p. 463; He et al. 2018, pp. 16-17; 
Reich et al. 2018, p. 21). In the 2015 withdrawal of our proposed rule, 
we concluded that the overall impact of climate change to the Bi-State 
DPS at this time is considered moderate. Neither the commenters nor 
others provided new information related to climate change that would 
result in a change in our analysis. Our conclusion of moderate impact 
from climate change may ultimately prove to be conservative, but we 
believe this is the most supportable conclusion given the inherent 
uncertainties associated with climate modeling, especially prediction 
concerning precipitation. Additionally, conservation efforts associated 
with the 2012 BSAP (such as grazing exclosures, changes to grazing 
management plans, prescribed fires, invasive plant control, mechanical 
treatments, and conservation of meadow habitats) are increasing 
resiliency such that the magnitude of climate changes impacts will be 
reduced into the foreseeable future. If in the future substantial new 
information becomes available as to the specific impacts that may be 
incurred by the Bi-State DPS associated with climate change, we will 
revisit this assessment.
    (11) Comment: Several commenters stated that we should have 
proposed listing the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse as an 
endangered species as opposed to a threatened species.
    Our Response: Section 3 of the Act defines an endangered species as 
any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a 
significant portion of its range, and a threatened species as any 
species that is likely to become an endangered species within the 
foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its 
range. With regard to the Bi-State DPS, we have identified a series of 
threats across the range of the Bi-State DPS that are resulting in the 
present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its 
habitat or range, and other natural or manmade threats affecting the 
DPS's continued existence. We have determined that, assuming current 
conditions continue into the future, these impacts are such that the 
DPS is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable 
future (i.e., the definition of a threatened species).
    Many of these impacts are cumulatively acting upon the Bi-State DPS 
and increase the risk of extinction, but not to such a degree that the 
DPS is in danger of extinction today (see Determination of Status for 
the Bi-State DPS, below). However, after consideration of partially 
completed projects and future conservation efforts that we have found 
to be highly certain to be implemented and effective (see Policy for 
Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions, 
above), we conclude the Bi-State DPS is not in danger of becoming 
extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and is 
not likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future 
(threatened), throughout all or a significant portion of its range. 
Therefore, the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse does not meet the 
definition of a threatened or endangered species, and we are 
withdrawing the proposed listing, 4(d), and critical habitat rules for 
the Bi-State DPS.
    (12) Comment: Some commenters were concerned about the effects of 
listing on mining and associated activities conducted under the General 
Mining Law of 1872. One commenter suggested that listing did not take 
into consideration Federal mining law and recognition of valid existing 
rights. Another commenter was concerned that there would be no 
assurances that development of a mining claim will result in the 
ability to mine it.
    Our Response: In the proposed listing rule, we identified mining 
and associated activities to be a threat to the Bi-State DPS; however, 
today we consider it a less significant impact and one that does not 
occur across the entire Bi-State area. On federally managed land 
outside of designated wilderness and wilderness study area 
(approximately 92 percent of all federal lands (1,629,669 ha or 
4,027,000 ac)), new mining may occur pursuant to the Mining Law of 1872 
(30 U.S.C. 21 et seq.), which was enacted to promote exploration and 
development of domestic mineral resources, as well as the settlement of 
the western United States. It permits U.S. citizens and businesses to 
prospect hardrock (locatable) minerals and, if a valuable deposit is 
found, file a claim giving them the right to use the land for mining 
activities and sell the minerals extracted. Gold and other minerals are 
frequently mined as locatable minerals subject to the Mining Law of 
1872. Federal agencies with jurisdiction over land where mining occurs 
will review mining and other actions that they fund, authorize, or 
carry out to determine if listed species may be affected in accordance 
with section 7 of the Act. Because we are withdrawing our proposed rule 
to list the Bi-State DPS and it will not be placed on the list of 
federally endangered or threatened species, consultations under section 
7 of the Act will not be required specific to the Bi-State DPS.
    As discussed above, potential exists for mining operations to 
expand both currently and into the future, but the scope of impacts 
from existing mining expansion is not considered extensive. We 
concluded that, by itself, mining is not currently considered a 
significant impact to the Bi-State population, though mining 
exploration continues, and mining activity could occur at any time in 
the future.
    (13) Comment: Several commenters stated that they believe mining is 
not a threat to the Bi-State DPS. Alternatively, another commenter 
suggested impacts from mining are significant.
    Our Response: In the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 60-63) and 
in Mining,

[[Page 18091]]

we address potential impacts associated with mining activities. Sage-
grouse could be impacted directly or indirectly from an increase in 
human presence, land use practices, ground shock, noise, dust, reduced 
air quality, degradation of water quality and quantity, and changes in 
vegetation and topography (Moore and Mills 1977, entire; Brown and 
Clayton 2004, p. 2). However, these effects are theoretical, given that 
information relating sage-grouse response to mineral developments is 
not extensive. Neither the commenters nor others provided new 
information related to this threat. While we maintain that it is 
reasonable to assume a negative impact from mining on sage-grouse, 
based on the current extent and location of mineral developments in the 
Bi-State area, we conclude that mining is not considered a significant 
impact at this time. Mining is a potential future concern based on its 
potential to impact important lek complexes and population 
connectivity. It may also create effects that combine with other 
threats currently acting on the Bi-State DPS resulting in a higher 
degree of negative impact in the future, though not to the extent that 
the species will become endangered in the forseeable future. See the 
Mining section of the 2019 Species Report for a complete discussion of 
the potential effects of mining activities on the Bi-State DPS and its 
habitat.
    (14) Comment: Numerous commenters suggested that our grazing and 
rangeland management assessment in the proposed listing rule is not 
accurate and requires additional clarification. Specifically, they 
suggested that: (1) Current livestock grazing is compatible with sage-
grouse conservation in the Bi-State area, (2) a more clearly defined 
delineation is needed between past and present grazing impacts, and (3) 
additional delineation is needed among grazing animals (such as cattle, 
horses, sheep). Alternatively, several other commenters suggested that 
grazing and rangeland management are a significant threat to the Bi-
State DPS's conservation and that this threat is not adequately 
controlled by existing management programs.
    Our Response: In the 2019 Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 65-73) 
and in Grazing and Rangeland Management, we found that the majority of 
sage-grouse habitat in the Bi-State area is not significantly impacted 
by livestock grazing. Specifically, RHAs or their equivalents (the 
standard used by Federal agencies to assess habitat condition) have 
been completed on allotments covering approximately 81 percent of 
suitable sage-grouse habitat in the Bi-State area. Of the allotments 
with RHAs completed, 81 percent (n=97) are meeting upland vegetation 
standards, suggesting that approximately 352,249 ha (870,427 ac) out of 
approximately 563,941 ha (1,393,529 ac) of suitable sage-grouse habitat 
are known to be in a condition compatible with sagebrush community 
maintenance. Furthermore, of the allotments with RHAs completed, 45 
percent are meeting riparian standards and 27 percent are not, with the 
remainder being unknown or the allotment not containing riparian 
habitat. Of those not meeting riparian standards (approximately 15 
percent), livestock were a significant or partially significant cause 
for the allotment failing to meet identified standards while the 
remainders were attributed to other causes such as past mining activity 
or road presence. In each instance of an allotment not meeting 
standards due to livestock, remedial actions have been taken by the 
representative land managing agency (such as changes in intensity, 
duration, or season of use by livestock). Furthermore, while we have 
information on the class of livestock (i.e., sheep, cattle) associated 
with any given allotment, we did not analyze these allotments 
independently based on this difference.
    While it is true that types of livestock will use vegetation 
communities differently, meaning some animals consume more shrubs and 
others consume more grasses, RHAs or their equivalents are a measure of 
the condition of the allotment against a desired condition, which 
includes among other things fish and wildlife habitat condition. Given 
that RHAs in the Bi-State area consider suitable sage-grouse habitat 
condition as part of their evaluation, including shrub and herbaceous 
cover, we consider RHAs as a unit of measure sufficiently fine-scaled 
to be informative. Ultimately, based on data contained within RHAs, we 
concluded that modern livestock grazing is not a significant impact on 
sage-grouse habitat.
    We also note that historical impacts from livestock grazing and 
impacts caused by feral horses are apparent, but data to assess these 
impacts are limited. None of the commenters provided additional data to 
assist with this assessment. In total, we believe that historical 
impacts (past grazing and other land uses) and impacts from feral horse 
use is apparent in local areas, but we consider current management to 
be sufficient to address these issues.
    (15) Comment: Several commenters provided information pertaining to 
population performance and size across the DPS as a whole as well as 
for individual Population Management Units.
    Our Response: While we appreciate these updates, all of these 
comments and the data contained within them have been considered in the 
associated 2019 Species Report as well as within this document. 
Furthermore, we note that the most recent final results stemming from 
the IPM (Coates et al. 2020, entire) are similarly incorporated into 
our 2019 Species Report and this document. The data provided by 
commenters have either been updated by incorporating more recent data 
into the analysis or by making slight alterations to the modelling 
approach. Many preliminary research results are presented to the Local 
Area Working Group during regularly occurring meetings. These results, 
however, are often prone to change as the research is finalized. 
Therefore, the numbers presented in the 2019 Species Report and 
incorporated into this document represent the most up-to-date finalized 
findings and represent the best scientific and commercial data 
available.
    (16) Comment: At least one commenter questioned the efficacy and 
rationale for the currently ongoing translocation effort in the Parker 
Meadows subpopulation. The commenter specifically expressed concern 
over the potential impact this action may have on the source population 
and further questioned whether the habitat in the Parker Meadows area 
is sufficiently suitable for the reintroduction.
    Our Response: The 2012 Action Plan identified augmentation of the 
Parker Meadows subpopulation via translocation as a conservation 
action. This effort was identified as a need based on the small size of 
the subpopulation, genetic information highlighting relatively low 
genetic diversity in the subpopulation, and recent monitoring results 
identifying low hatchability of clutches (females were laying eggs but 
these eggs were not hatching, suggesting eggs were either going 
unfertilized or genetic anomalies were inhibiting some aspect of egg 
development). To restore genetic and demographic health to the 
subpopulation, birds from outside the subpopulation were captured and 
moved to the Parker Meadows site. The overarching intent of this action 
was to conserve and enhance connectivity between PMUs, specifically 
between the South Mono and Bodie PMUs.
    Prior to initiating this effort, members of the Bi-State TAC 
conducted a site visit to assess habitat condition. Habitat

[[Page 18092]]

was deemed to be of suitable condition but for the occurrence of a 
limited number of conifer trees that had become established in 
proximity to the lek and brood-rearing meadow. These trees were removed 
prior to the augmentation. In addition, the Bi-State TAC evaluated the 
potential impact the source population may incur, due to the removal of 
birds, via the IPM. Essentially, the study evaluated how altering adult 
female and brood survival for the source population impacted population 
performance. The source population was the Bodie PMU, and the results 
suggested the removal of birds from this location would not affect 
overall population growth within this PMU. We evaluated the potential 
impact from this action in the 2019 Species Report, within the 
Scientific and Educational Uses section (Service 2020, pp. 101-104).
    Ultimately, measuring the success of this translocation effort will 
require additional time. Preliminary results suggest that translocated 
birds are remaining in the Parker Meadows area at an increasing rate, 
probability of nest initiation and nest success have increased, brood 
success is on par with the remainder of the DPS, and lek counts have 
increased over the past 2 years.
    (17) Comment: Several commenters expressed concern over the 
estimated effective population size of the DPS as a whole as well as 
for specific populations.
    Our Response: As discussed in Small Population Size and Population 
Isolation, studies suggest effective population size should exceed 50 
to 100 individuals to avoid short-term extinction risk caused by 
inbreeding depression, and mathematical models suggest that effective 
population size should exceed 500 individuals to retain evolutionary 
potential and avoid long-term extinction risk (Franklin 1980, entire; 
Soule 1980, entire). However, some estimates of an effective population 
size necessary to retain evolutionary potential are as high as 5,000 
individuals, although these estimates are thought to be highly species 
specific and influenced by many extrinsic factors (Lande 1995, p. 789). 
The effective population size of the Bi-State DPS in 2018 was between 
330 and 661 birds (Table 2; Service 2020, pp. 119-121).
    We agree that the size of the populations and the relative degree 
of isolation among populations within the Bi-State area is a concern to 
species conservation as it can exacerbate the effects of genetic 
issues, stochastic events, and other threats to the DPS. However, as 
discussed above, the current genetic diversity present in the Bi-State 
area population is comparable to other populations, suggesting that the 
differences are not due to a genetic bottleneck or founder event 
(Oyler-McCance and Quinn 2011, p. 91; Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, p. 8). 
The available genetic information demonstrates that the Bi-State sage-
grouse are both discrete from other greater sage-grouse populations and 
are genetically unique. Further, a significant impetus of the 2012 
Action Plan was to facilitate connectivity among populations across the 
DPS. While we remain concerned regarding isolation of these 
populations, we believe that effective implementation of the 2012 
Action Plan will help alleviate concerns over loss of genetic diversity 
or the accumulation of deleterious alleles.
    (18) Comment: Several commenters identified new potential threats 
to the DPS, which were not apparent at the time of our proposed listing 
in 2013. Specifically, these include a potential change to how LADWP 
manages their lands in Long Valley, the potential for additional 
development within the designated West-wide Energy Corridor, a 
potential new hydro-pump storage energy development in the White 
Mountains PMU, and the development of a Programmatic Environmental 
Impact Statement pertaining to fuel break development in the Great 
Basin (PEIS).
    Our Response: We appreciate these updates on potential threats and 
note that each of these identified new threats has been considered in 
the associated 2019 Species Report as well as in this document.
    The Record of Decision on the West-wide Energy Corridor was signed 
in 2009 by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture. This action 
was challenged in court the same year, and a settlement was reached in 
2012. One aspect of the settlement was a reevaluation of the corridors 
identified in 2009, and the public scoping for this assessment was 
reopened in the past year. Thus, we have been aware of this potential 
activity for nearly a decade but recognize the renewed interest in its 
potential impact to the Bi-State DPS.
    A section of these designated corridors passes through the Mount 
Grant PMU. This corridor section currently has a high-voltage 
transmission line in place, but additional development may take place 
assuming the completion of this NEPA action. While we recognize that 
additional development may occur and may cause impacts to this 
population, we do not have any knowledge of, nor did the commenters 
provide, additional data informing the likelihood of future 
development. The reevaluation of these corridors is currently ongoing 
per the 2012 settlement. This reevaluation may, in fact, result in 
revisions to the 2009 corridor proposals. We do not have sufficient 
certainty at this time of what the potential impacts of this action may 
have on the Mount Grant PMU.
    The LADWP is currently evaluating alterations to the amount of 
water it has traditionally provided for agricultural use in Long 
Valley. This water allocation has most commonly been used to irrigate 
portions of Long Valley to benefit forage production for local ranching 
operations. An ancillary benefit of this practice has been the 
enhancement of sage-grouse brood-rearing habitat. Thus, changes to this 
practice could influence the sage-grouse population in Long Valley by 
negatively impacting chick survival. To address these type of concerns, 
in June of 2019, LADWP sent a letter to the Service reaffirming their 
commitment to their 2013 Conservation Strategy (implemented by a 
memorandum of understanding with FWS), through which LADWP supports 
sage-grouse conservation by, in part, utilizing its water resources to 
maintain and improve important habitat for sage-grouse on their lands; 
and to continue using a collaborative, science-based, and adaptive 
management approach to achieve the best habitat results. Therefore, we 
recognize the potential impacts that alteration to water supplies in 
Long Valley may have on the local sage-grouse population, but we 
consider this to be a manageable stressor, in light of LADWP's 
continuing commitment toward Bi-State DPS conservation.
    In 2019, an application was submitted to the Federal Energy 
Regulatory Commission to build and maintain a new hydro-pump storage 
facility within the White Mountains PMU, representing a potentially new 
threat to the DPS. However, this application was subsequently 
withdrawn. Therefore, the Service does not consider this formerly 
proposed facility to be an active threat to the Bi-State DPS.
    In 2017, the BLM published a notice of intent to prepare the 
development of a Great-Basin-Wide Fuel Break PEIS. The purpose of this 
document is to expedite the development, enhancement, maintenance, and 
utilization of fuel breaks to prevent or minimize the likelihood of 
large-scale wildfire events, which are becoming more prevalent in the 
Great Basin. This would be accomplished by establishing strategic fuel 
breaks wherein fire fighters could stage and anchor suppression 
activities to increase

[[Page 18093]]

quicker suppression response times. We recognize that Bi-State DPS 
habitat is included within the scope of the PEIS. Further, we recognize 
that fragmentation of habitats through the establishment of fuel breaks 
may negatively impact some wildlife species including greater sage-
grouse (Shinneman et al. 2019, pp. 4-7).
    There are trade-offs between the effects of habitat lost to fire 
and habitat lost or degraded by the establishment of a fuel break. 
Because the plan has not yet been prepared, it is difficult to fully 
assess its impacts on sagebrush habitat. Still, we anticipated that, 
after the PEIS is complete, site-specific NEPA analysis (or possibly 
categorical exclusion or determinations of NEPA adequacy analyses) will 
still be developed, as the PEIS does not detail the specific locations 
where these fuel breaks will be established. Given current direction 
provided by Land Use Plans in the Bi-State area, identified ``Best 
Management Practices'' outlined in the PEIS, and the existing 
collaboration among the EOC, TAC, and LAWG, we contend that future 
discussions pertaining to the potential establishment of fuel breaks in 
the Bi-State area will be robust and afford substantial deference to 
sage-grouse as well as the integrity of the entire sagebrush ecosystem. 
Therefore, we do not consider the PEIS to negatively impact the 
species, and thus do not consider it in our threats analysis.
    (19) Comment: One commenter questioned the feasibility of ongoing 
financial commitments provided by the Bi-State EOC toward the 
implementation of the 2012 BSAP.
    Our Response: The BSAP identifies threats to the conservation of 
sage-grouse in the Bi-State area and delineates specific conservation 
actions to alleviate those threats. In 2014, the Bi-State EOC pledged 
to fund these actions at a value in excess of 45 million dollars over a 
10-year timeframe. We recognize that funding commitments provided by 
Federal agencies over a 10-year time horizon may appear speculative, 
given these agencies typically work with annual funding cycles driven 
by the U.S. Congress appropriations process; however, agency managers 
still retain substantial discretion to forecast and plan how to utilize 
appropriations in a longer term strategy. From 2014 through 2018, 
approximately 26 million dollars have already been allocated, 
representing approximately 57 percent of pledged funds (Bi-State TAC 
2018, p. 35). Furthermore, agency partners in the EOC recently updated 
their respective letters of commitment to continue funding for the next 
5 years. Given the robust collaborative effort in the Bi-State area in 
combination with the realized funding track record over the past 5 
years and recent reiterations of commitments for future funding, we 
consider the likelihood of future commitments to be high.
    (20) Comment: One commenter suggested we should assess human 
population density on a county-by-county basis to determine how it 
compares to the four people per 1 km\2\ threshold established by 
Aldridge et al. (2008).
    Our Response: In 2008, Aldridge et al. (2008) published a peer-
reviewed scientific article, which evaluated a number of predictive 
variables to compare locations of extant versus extirpated sage-grouse 
populations. We note that this correlative study does not imply 
causation but is a frequently used approach in wildlife studies and 
that this type of approach can be highly informative.
    As discussed in Urbanization and Habitat Conversion, in modeling 
several measures of human population on greater sage-grouse 
persistence, including current population density, historical 
population density, and human population growth, the best predictor of 
sage-grouse extirpation was human population density in 1950 (Aldridge 
et al. 2008, p. 985). This finding suggests that human development has 
had long-term impacts on habitat suitability and sage-grouse 
persistence. Extirpation was more likely in areas having a moderate 
human population density of at least four people per 1 km\2\ (10 people 
per 1 mi\2\). Furthermore, increase in human populations from this 
moderate level did not infer a greater likelihood of extirpation, 
likely because much of the additional growth occurred in areas no 
longer suitable for sage-grouse (Aldridge et al. 2008, pp. 991-992).
    In the 2019 Species Report, we examined the potential likelihood of 
population changes that may influence urbanization and habitat 
conversion in the future, by reviewing the most recent U.S. Census 
Bureau data (U.S. Census Bureau 2018). We found five of eight counties 
in the Bi-State area have documented declines in the estimated number 
of people present between 2010 and 2017: Alpine, Mono, and Inyo 
Counties in California, and Mineral and Carson City Counties in Nevada. 
In addition, all of these counties except Carson City, Nevada, support 
substantially fewer than four people per 1 km\2\ (10 people per 1 
mi\2\). The remaining three counties in the Bi-State area have seen 
human population increases over the past decade, ranging from 2.8 
percent for Douglas County, Nevada, and 4.1 percent for Lyon County, 
Nevada, to 8.4 percent for Esmerelda County, Nevada (U.S. Census Bureau 
2018). While Esmerelda County still contains substantially fewer than 
four people per km\2\ (four people per 0.4 mi\2\), both Lyon and 
Douglas Counties, Nevada, have from two to six times that population 
density.
    Although we do not have specific information on possible future 
developments from each of these counties with documented human 
population increases, we are aware that recent development levels are 
reduced as compared to the past. Obviously, this metric can be 
informative but potentially misleading or unsatisfying. Frequently, 
counties have high- and low-density areas such as cities and towns or 
more rural developments. Evaluating the number of people per area does 
not capture the true distribution of people across the landscape. So, 
while it is reasonable to use the Aldridge et al. (2008) study to 
explore similarities or differences among locations, two counties with 
the same density of people can have differing levels of effects to 
sage-grouse based on the pattern of development.
    (21) Comment: One commenter suggested we should invite and 
interview Native American tribal partners to share their knowledge of 
historical and pre-historical occurrence of sage-grouse in the Bi-State 
area.
    Our Response: We agree that our Native American partners have a 
rich oral and written history in the Bi-State area, and we have been 
working with them since 2014 to incorporate their knowledge into the 
Bi-State collaboration. The first milestone of this endeavor occurred 
in 2016 in the form of a Traditional Ecological Knowledge Summit 
intended to engage and learn from the local and more broadly dispersed 
Native American Tribes in the Great Basin on sage-grouse history and 
conservation and the cultural significance of pinyon pine trees. This 
well-attended event presented an opportunity for the dissemination of 
traditional knowledge and subsequently led to the establishment of the 
Bi-State Traditional Natural Resources Committee. The intent of this 
committee is simple, to expand the breadth of the Bi-State 
collaboration such that decisions and actions are informed by and take 
into consideration Native American concerns and insights. We are 
pleased to further expand the Bi-State collaborative through the 
participation of Native American tribes and agree that inclusion of 
traditional knowledge is an

[[Page 18094]]

imperative. With respect to this listing decision process specifically, 
we extended an invitation to Tribal partners to review and comment on 
our 2019 Species Report prior to its completion, but we did not receive 
any responses.
    (22) Comment: One commenter stated that we must consider the best 
available science on impacts to sage-grouse wintering habitats and map 
Bi-State sage-grouse wintering habitat to assess threats to it. 
Further, they stated this is of critical importance because wintering 
habitats may be found outside habitats designated on the basis of 
breeding and nesting habitats.
    Our Response: We concur that an understanding of wintering habitats 
is important to conservation and management of the Bi-State DPS. We 
further agree that mapping of wintering habitat would be useful to 
assess threats. However, we are required to make our determination 
based on the best scientific and commercial data available at the time 
of our rulemaking, and information on wintering habitats as well as 
maps of wintering habitat are not currently available. In preparing 
this document, we considered the best scientific and commercial data 
available regarding the Bi-State DPS to evaluate their potential status 
under the Act. We solicited peer review of our evaluation of the 
available data, and our peer reviewers supported our analysis. Science 
is a cumulative process, and the body of knowledge is ever-growing. In 
light of this, the Service will always take new research into 
consideration into future analyses of the Bi-State DPS, but we are 
required to publish a final decision on the Bi-State DPS in the Federal 
Register by April 1, 2020. If plausible new research supports amendment 
or revision of this withdrawal document in the future, the Service will 
consider the new information consistent with the Act and our 
established work priorities at that time.
    (23) Comment: One commenter suggested we should present up-to-date 
acreage for private lands covered by conservation easements and provide 
descriptions of projects funded by the NRCS.
    Our Response: We estimate that, since 2003, approximately 10,415 ha 
(25,737 ac) of private land, which may provide suitable habitat for 
sage-grouse in the Bi-State DPS, are currently enrolled in various 
easement programs. The easements are targeted primarily at development 
and water rights and vary in length from 30 years to in perpetuity. The 
majority of these easement lands are located in the Bodie PMU, with the 
remainder of easements occurring in the Desert Creek-Fales, South Mono, 
Pine Nut, and White Mountains PMUs. In addition, we estimate that 
approximately 9,737 ha (24,060 ac) of previously private land within 
the Bi-State DPS has been acquired by State and Federal agencies over 
this same timeframe. In total, approximately 20,153 ha (49,800 ac) of 
land, either through conservation easements or acquisitions, has been 
substantially protected from urbanization challenges. These acres 
represent approximately 31 percent of total private lands containing 
mapped sage-grouse habitat across the Bi-State. Furthermore, 12,243 ha 
(30,254 ac) of the total 20,153 ha (49,800 ac) of easements and 
acquisitions completed since 2003 have been accomplished since the 
adoption of the BSAP in 2012. Further, we note that approximately 7,284 
ha (18,000 ac) of private lands have funding obligated for conservation 
easements, but these transactions are still in progress. An effort to 
acquire approximately 5,870 ha (14,500 ac) of lands in the Pine Nut PMU 
by the Carson City BLM has been approved and is anticipated to finalize 
in spring of 2020.
    The NRCS, via the Farm Bill, can fund restoration actions on 
private and public lands across the Bi-State DPS. The suite of actions 
they can fund is broad, but based on a Conference Report with the 
Service in 2010, there are three main types of conservation practice 
standards employed: management, vegetative, and structural. Examples of 
practices that fall under these three main categories include (but are 
not limited to): (1) Prescribed grazing assistance, upland and meadow 
management, access management; (2) forest slash management, cover crop, 
weed control, seeding; and (3) infrastructure, fish and wildlife 
structure, obstruction removal. While a variety of these practices have 
been employed in the Bi-State area, in general the preponderance of 
NRCS's efforts in the Bi-State area have focused on securing 
conservation easements and conifer removal. Since 2010, NRCS has placed 
into easement approximately 8,741 ha (21,600 ac) of private lands. In 
addition, over this same timeframe, NRCS has funded the removal of 
approximately 4,649 ha (11,488 ac) of conifer trees for the benefit of 
the species across multiple PMUs.
    (24) Comment: Several commenters expressed concern over population 
performance in some subpopulations and how this may result in range 
contraction of the DPS. Further one commenter submitted that we 
evaluate lek count data collected by the States and incorporate it into 
population trend analysis.
    Our Response: We agree that some of the smaller peripheral 
populations experiencing population declines may result in range 
contractions in the Bi-State DPS as a whole. A recent analysis 
considering data from the past 24 years on four populations found that 
some populations in the Bi-State DPS are contracting their habitat use, 
with contractions most apparent in the Fales, Long Valley, and Sagehen 
populations (Coates et al. 2020, p. 44). Over this same time, 
distributional area in the Bodie Hills has increased (Coates et al. 
2020, p. 44). Across the entire Bi-State area, these results suggest a 
median net loss of 858 ha (2,120 ac) annually. Additionally, recent 
changes in distribution (past 11 years) suggests a pattern similar to 
those described for the long-term spatial trend analysis.
    This short-term analysis also considered additional populations 
(Coates et al. 2020, p. 51). These results suggest contractions of 
total area for the Desert Creek, Long Valley, Mount Grant, Pine Nut, 
Sagehen, and White Mountains populations and expansion in the Bodie 
Hills, Fales, and Parker Meadows populations. Similar to the long-term 
analysis, the net effect over the 11 years was a loss of total area 
occupied over time, which corresponds to a median loss of 2,312 ha 
(5,713 ac) annually since 2008 (Coates et al. 2020, p. 51). These 
apparent declines in certain populations and habitat use over the 
shorter time period was likely influenced by the fact that the DPS is 
in the downward portion of their cyclic population growth. We also note 
that a significant drought affected this DPS from 2011 to 2015, and 
based on our understanding of the drivers behind sage-grouse population 
cycles, this drought condition has very likely affected recent 
population performance. We will continue to monitor the condition of 
these smaller, peripheral populations while working with our partners 
to implement beneficial actions from the BSAP.
    As part of our assessments of the Bi-State DPS, we request and 
review lek count data from NDOW and CDFW. We recognize that this data 
can be informative but further acknowledge that these data have 
limitations. For example, sage-grouse are known to forgo breeding 
activity during years of poor conditions, such as drought. Therefore, 
an individual animal may still be present in the population but does 
not attend the lek and therefore is not counted. While the data in this 
instance may suggest decline, it is misleading. There is support, 
however, that over a longer timeframe (8-10 years), lek counts act as a 
reasonable index to

[[Page 18095]]

population performance. Modeling these data helps alleviate concerns 
over the inherent errors associated with lek counts. Further, 
integrating the observations with additional data such as that 
collected via telemetry studies makes for a much more robust approach 
to understanding population dynamics. Ultimately, we do not dismiss lek 
count information, but we contend that incorporating this information 
into a more holistic approach--such as the Integrated Population Model 
for the Bi-State DPS--is a more informative approach to understanding 
population abundance and trend.
    (25) Comment: One commenter suggested we review Smith and Beck 
(2017) and contends that sagebrush treatments do not benefit greater 
sage-grouse and further that pinyon-juniper treatments also disturb 
sagebrush habitat, implying pinyon-juniper treatments do not benefit 
sage-grouse.
    Our Response: We appreciate this information. We agree with the 
findings in this report and submit that these results have been 
supported by others investigating habitat selection by greater sage-
grouse. While the removal of sagebrush to benefit herbaceous understory 
development was a relatively frequent activity in the 1940s to the 
1970s (Knick et al. 2011, p. 220), this form of action has been greatly 
curtailed in the past two decades. There may still be benefits to this 
type of action, and it is still conducted sporadically, but recent 
treatment methodology has been to open small gaps in the shrub canopy 
to alter the mosaic of the landscape in hopes of improving brood-
rearing habitat. The validity of this treatment approach remains 
uncertain, and our understanding of the appropriate sage-grouse habitat 
mosaic remains untested.
    The intent of pinyon-juniper removal projects is to facilitate 
sagebrush community conservation and improve the suitability of a 
location for sage-grouse. Sage-grouse avoid tree communities, and their 
fitness is impacted by exposure to it. Furthermore, left unmanaged, 
trees will ultimately out-compete understory species (shrubs and 
herbaceous), resulting in a homogenous forested vegetation condition. 
Restoration of the shrub community at this point becomes extremely 
challenging. Targeted pinyon-juniper treatments in the Bi-State area 
are focused on, what is termed, phase I and phase II encroachment 
conditions. Phase I refers generally to conditions where trees are 
small (shrub high) with less than 10 percent canopy cover and the shrub 
community remains intact. Phase II occurs as the tree canopy cover 
increase (10-30 percent), trees increase in size, and the shrub 
community begins to decrease in dominance.
    Treatments of phase I communities is typically accomplished with 
garden pruners and pedestrian locomotion. This type of treatment would 
have negligible impact on the shrub community due to disturbance. As 
trees begin to increase in size, chainsaws and machinery are employed. 
In these instances, disturbance to the shrub community may occur but 
specific prescriptions and best management practices are followed to 
alleviate this exact concern. Shrub community disturbance in these 
instances do not equate to the treatments described by Smith and Beck 
(2017), where shrubs were specifically targeted for removal across 
large acreages. Finally, the potential short-term and restricted impact 
to the shrub community caused by tree removal treatments are outweighed 
by the long-term benefit gained through increasing and improving sage-
grouse habitats.
    (26) Comment: Several commenters expressed concern that economic 
development will be negatively impacted by listing and suggested that 
it is necessary for the Service to conduct an analysis of the impacts 
that listing a species may have on local economies prior to issuance of 
a final rule. Alternatively, one commenter submitted that the local 
economy will be positively benefited.
    Our Response: Under the Act, the Secretary shall make 
determinations whether any species is an endangered species or a 
threatened species solely on the basis of the best scientific and 
commercial data available. Thus, the Service is not allowed to consider 
the economic impact of listing when making determinations whether a 
species is an endangered species or a threatened species.

Determination of Status for the Bi-State DPS

    Section 4 of the Act (16 U.S.C. 1533) and its implementing 
regulations (50 CFR part 424) set forth the procedures for determining 
whether a species meets the definition of ``endangered species'' or 
``threatened species.'' The Act defines an ``endangered species'' as a 
species that is ``in danger of extinction throughout all or a 
significant portion of its range,'' and a ``threatened species'' as a 
species that is ``likely to become an endangered species within the 
foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its 
range.'' The Act requires that we determine whether a species meets the 
definition of ``endangered species'' or ``threatened species'' because 
of any of the following factors: (A) The present or threatened 
destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) 
Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 
educational purposes; (C) Disease or predation; (D) The inadequacy of 
existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) Other natural or manmade factors 
affecting its continued existence. For a more detailed discussion on 
the factors considered when determining whether a species meets the 
definition of ``endangered species'' or ``threatened species'' and our 
analysis on how we determine the foreseeable future in making these 
decisions, see Regulatory Framework, above.

Status Throughout All of Its Range

    In this document, we reviewed the biological condition of the Bi-
State DPS and its resources, and the influence of those resources on 
the species' overall viability and the risks to that viability. We 
presented summary evaluations of 11 threats analyzed in the Species 
Report: urbanization and habitat conversion (Factor A); infrastructure 
(Factor A); mining (Factor A); grazing and rangeland management (Factor 
A); nonnative invasive plants and native woodland succession (Factor 
A); wildfires and altered fire regime (Factor A); climate change, 
including drought (Factor A); recreation (Factor E); disease (Factor 
C); predation (Factor C); and small population size and population 
isolation (Factor E). We also evaluate the adequacy of existing 
regulatory mechanisms (Factor D) in ameliorating the magnitude and 
effect of threats. Please see the Species Report (Service 2020, pp. 39-
136) for a more detailed discussion of each threat.
    In the Species Report, we also presented our evaluation of four 
additional threats: Renewable energy (Factor A), commercial and 
recreational hunting (Factor B); scientific and educational uses 
(Factor B); and contaminants (including pesticides) (Factor E). In the 
species report, we concluded that, although these threats are currently 
having some impact on individual sage-grouse and their habitat, their 
overall effect now and into the future is expected to be minimal. We 
did not present summary analyses of those threats in this document but, 
did consider them in Summary of Threats and consider them now as a part 
of our determination of status.
    When we issued a proposed rule to list the Bi-State DPS in 2013 (78 
FR 64358, October 28, 2013), we found that the species was likely to 
become endangered in the foreseeable future

[[Page 18096]]

throughout all of its range due to threats associated with native 
woodland succession, the wildfire-invasive plant cycle, effects 
associated with small population size, and increased fragmentation of 
sagebrush habitat in the Bi-State area. Many of these threats remain on 
the landscape today. Pinyon-juniper encroachment (Factor A) continues 
to alter sagebrush habitat in the Bi-State area. Effects due to 
wildfire (Factor A) and nonnative invasive plants (cheatgrass) (Factor 
A) also continue to alter and degrade sagebrush habitat. The effects of 
drought (Factor A) are exacerbating impacts of wildfire, invasive 
plants, and altered wildfire regimes across the Bi-State area. In the 
future, climate change (Factor A) will result in warmer temperatures, 
altered precipitation regimes, and more frequent droughts. These 
changes will likely result in a greater intensity of these other 
threats into the foreseeable future. Drought in particular appears to 
have a strong influence on population dynamics and population cycling 
in the Bi-State DPS (Coates et al. 2020, pp. 27, 29).
    Areas across the Bi-State DPS are experiencing combined impacts of 
threats from wildfire, invasive species, urbanization (Factor A), 
infrastructure effects (Factor A), and recreation (Factor E); these 
effects may be exacerbated by population isolation and discontinuous 
population structure (Factor E). Regulatory mechanisms (Factor D), 
particularly RMPs and land management plans, are helping to ameliorate 
some threats across the Bi-State DPS. These plans provide specific 
direction for management of the DPS and its habitat, including 
decreasing habitat disturbance (direct effects) and noise and other 
impacts (indirect effects), through provisions addressing recreation, 
grazing, weeds, wild horses, minerals, and fire management.
    Impacts associated with Factor B (commercial and recreational 
hunting, and scientific and educational uses) are having very minor 
effects the Bi-State DPS now, and they are not expected to 
substantially increase within the foreseeable future. Predation (Factor 
C), particularly by ravens, is impacting the DPS, but not at a 
magnitude where resiliency is significantly affected. However, as 
habitat degradation and fragmentation continue to increase, the 
magnitude of the threat of predation could increase into the future.
    The key distinction between now and the 2013 proposed listing rule 
is the implementation of the 2012 BSAP, which began implementation in 
2014 with the publication of the 2014 EOC report and the letters of 
commitment from partner agencies. Ongoing and future conservation 
efforts associated with the BSAP are likely to increase habitat 
quantity, quality, and connectivity, and enhance resiliency, 
redundancy, and representation. Efforts associated with the BSAP will:
    (1) Protect and restore critical brood-rearing habitat (reduces 
impacts from development/habitat conversion, grazing and rangeland 
management, and effects resulting from climate change).
    (2) Restore habitat impacted by nonnative, invasive species (e.g., 
cheatgrass) and pinyon-juniper encroachment (reduces impacts from 
nonnative, invasive and certain native plants, wildfire, predation, and 
effects resulting from climate change).
    (3) Improve our understanding of sage-grouse populations, 
structure, etc., to: (a) Prioritize management actions related to 
synergistic impacts on already fragmented habitat (reduced impacts such 
as infrastructure, urbanization, and recreation), such that management 
efforts occur in locations that benefit the DPS the most; and (b) 
develop and implement sage-grouse translocations from stable 
subpopulations to other small subpopulations that may be experiencing a 
high risk of extirpation (reduces impacts from small population size 
and population structure).
    These measures will likely increase the number of sage-grouse and 
resiliency of populations throughout the Bi-State DPS. These efforts to 
stop and reverse habitat loss and fragmentation will make small 
populations of Bi-State sage-grouse less susceptible to the effects of 
habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation. They will expand the 
amount of protected habitat in critical brood-rearing habitat areas as 
well as restore currently unsuitable habitat in areas utilized for 
dispersal and colonization. As a whole, conservation efforts associated 
with the BSAP are expected to increase species redundancy and the Bi-
State's ability to withstand future random, stochastic events.
    Additionally, in recent years, we have gained increased certainty 
of the effectiveness of pinyon-juniper removal on restoring sagebrush 
habitat and the use of restored areas by sage-grouse (Sandford et al. 
2017, p. 63; Severson et al. 2017, p. 53; Olsen 2019, pp. 21-22). 
Further, sage-grouse using restored areas had significantly increased 
survival and brood success in treated versus control areas, with 
population growth was 11.2 percent higher in treatment than in control 
sites within 5 years of conifer removal (Olsen 2019, pp. 21-22).
    Recent trend analyses have given us a stronger understanding of the 
population dynamics of the Bi-State DPS. The Bi-State DPS appears to be 
undergoing population cycling, which is typical of sage-grouse 
populations rangewide. The most recent study concluded that the DPS, as 
a whole, experiences stable trends over all three time periods studied, 
and that in the period 1995-2018, the DPS increased by 2 percent a year 
(95 percent CRI = 0.74-1.42) (Coates et al. 2020, p. 25). Although the 
Bi-State DPS experienced periods of decline, these declines were offset 
by later periods of population growth (Coates et al. 2020, p. 25). 
Overall, the modelled probability of extirpation of the Bi-State DPS 
over the next 10 years is very low (1.1 percent; Coates et al. 2020, 
Table 1). It is important to note that individual population trends of 
some populations within PMUs have declined, and areas such as Sagehen 
and Parker Meadows (both in the South Mono PMU) have high probabilities 
of extirpation over the next 10 years, though the extirpation 
probability of the South Mono PMU is only 3.8 percent (Coates et al. 
2020, Table 1). Longer-term extirpation probabilities are not available 
for all PMUs, but the 30-year probabilities of declining below 50 males 
for the North Mono Lake area (the Desert-Creek Fales, Bodie, and Mount 
Grant PMUs) and for the South Mono PMU were both 8 percent (Garton et 
al 2015, p. 14). Conservation efforts are in place to help offset 
declining populations such as the translocation of broods to Parker 
Meadows, which has shown some early signs of success. Conservation 
measures in other areas, including post-fire restoration, wild horse 
gathers, fuel reduction treatment, and pinyon-juniper removal, are 
further reducing the magnitude of threats.
    Many of the conservation efforts associated with the BSAP have only 
been completed in recent years or are in the process of being 
completed. As discussed in more detail in our full PECE analysis, 142 
of the 159 identified actions in the BSAP have been initiated and are 
in stages of completion, meaning they are in progress, ongoing, occur 
annually, or have been evaluated as part of the planning process (Bi-
State TAC 2018, p. 45), but have not necessarily been completed. Thus, 
the full benefits of the conservation actions may not yet be achieved 
or apparent in sage-grouse population growth rates or in probabilities 
of extirpation, which are calculated by projecting past trends into the 
future. Some positive results are already apparent. For example, the 
translocation effort in Parker Meadows began in 2018 and has shown some

[[Page 18097]]

early signs of success in improved reproductive success and 
recruitment. Overall, as described in our PECE analysis (Service 2019, 
entire), based on studies showing the effectiveness of other 
conservation actions (such as pinyon-juniper removal) and on detailed 
implementation schedules provided by agencies participating in the 
BSAP, we have sufficient certainty that conservation efforts outlined 
in the BSAP will be implemented and effective, and will increase the 
viability of the species into the future.
    The BSAP does not remove or eliminate all threats to the species, 
and we expect impacts from cheatgrass, pinyon-juniper encroachment, 
altered wildfire regime, and climate change to continue to act on the 
species into the foreseeable future. Overall, however, we find that the 
BSAP and existing regulatory mechanisms are reducing the level of 
threats and increasing population resiliency across the Bi-State DPS.
    After evaluating threats to the species and assessing the 
cumulative effect of the threats under the section 4(a)(1) factors, we 
conclude that, due to the effects of conservation actions as analyzed 
under our PECE policy, the threats impacting the Bi-State DPS of the 
greater-sage grouse have been greatly reduced. Thus, after assessing 
the best available information, we conclude that the Bi-State DPS is 
not in danger of extinction throughout all of its range. We, therefore, 
proceed with determining whether the Bi-State DPS is likely to become 
so within the foreseeable future.
    Threats such as wildfire and altered fire regimes, climate change, 
nonnative invasive plants and native woodland succession, recreation, 
and others are expected to continue or increase into the future. Within 
the foreseeable future, we expect the individual and combined impacts 
of these threats to continue to increase. In particular, effects 
associated with climate change, such as drought, will continue to 
degrade habitat supporting the Bi-State DPS. However, as noted above, 
actions associated with the BSAP are expected to increase resiliency, 
redundancy, and representation of the Bi-State DPS, increasing the 
overall viability of the DPS such that they will be able to withstand 
the increased magnitude of threats into the foreseeable future. Thus, 
after assessing the best available information, we conclude that the 
Bi-State DPS is not likely to become in danger of extinction within the 
foreseeable future throughout all of its range.

Status Throughout a Significant Portion of Its Range

    Under the Act and our implementing regulations, a species may 
warrant listing if it is in danger of extinction or likely to become so 
within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion 
of its range. Having determined that the Bi-State DPS is not in danger 
of extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable future 
throughout all of its range, we now consider whether it may be in 
danger of extinction or likely to become so within the foreseeable 
future in a significant portion of its range. The range of a species 
can theoretically be divided into portions in an infinite number of 
ways, so we first screen the potential portions of the species' range 
to determine if there are any portions that warrant further 
consideration. To do the ``screening'' analysis, we ask whether there 
are portions of the species' range for which there is substantial 
information indicating that: (1) The portion may be significant; and, 
(2) the species may be, in that portion, either in danger of extinction 
or likely to become so in the foreseeable future. For a particular 
portion, if we cannot answer both questions in the affirmative, then 
that portion does not warrant further consideration and the species 
does not warrant listing because of its status in that portion of its 
range. Conversely, we emphasize that answering both of these questions 
in the affirmative is not a determination that the species is in danger 
of extinction or likely to become so within the foreseeable future 
throughout a significant portion of its range--rather, it is a 
threshold step to determine whether a more-detailed analysis of the 
issue is required.
    If we answer these questions in the affirmative, we then conduct a 
more thorough analysis to determine whether the portion does indeed 
meet both of the ``significant portion of the range'' prongs: (1) The 
portion is significant and (2) the species is, in that portion, either 
in danger of extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable 
future. Confirmation that a portion does indeed meet one of these 
prongs does not create a presumption, prejudgment, or other 
determination as to whether the species is an endangered species or 
threatened species. Rather, we must then undertake a more detailed 
analysis of the other prong to make that determination. Only if the 
portion does indeed meet both prongs would the species warrant listing 
because of its status in a significant portion of its range.
    At both stages in this process--the stage of screening potential 
portions to identify any that warrant further consideration, and the 
stage of undertaking the more detailed analysis of any portions that do 
warrant further consideration--it might be more efficient for us to 
address the ``significance'' question or the ``status'' question first. 
Our selection of which question to address first for a particular 
portion depends on the biology of the species, its range, and the 
threats it faces. Regardless of which question we address first, if we 
reach a negative answer with respect to the first question that we 
address, we do not need to evaluate the second question for that 
portion of the species' range.
    For the Bi-State DPS, we chose to address the status question 
(i.e., identifying portions where the Bi-State DPS may be in danger of 
extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable future) first. To 
conduct this screening, we considered whether any of the threats acting 
on the DPS are geographically concentrated in any portion of the range 
at a biologically meaningful scale. We examined the following threats 
throughout the range of the DPS: Urbanization and habitat conversion 
(Factor A); infrastructure (Factor A); mining (Factor A); grazing and 
rangeland management (Factor A); nonnative invasive plants and native 
woodland succession (Factor A); wildfires and altered fire regime 
(Factor A); climate change, including drought (Factor A); recreation 
(Factor E); disease (Factor C); predation (Factor C); renewable energy 
(Factor A), commercial and recreational hunting (Factor B); scientific 
and educational uses (Factor B); pesticides and other contaminants 
(Factor E), as well as the potential for effects from small population 
size (Factor E).
    We identified one portion of the Bi-State DPS, essentially the Pine 
Nut PMU, that is experiencing a concentration of the following threats: 
Urbanization, infrastructure, wildfire (and associated isolation and 
fragmentation of populations), cheatgrass, livestock and feral horses, 
nonnative woodland succession, and recreation. Although these threats 
are not unique to this PMU area, they are acting at a greater intensity 
here (e.g., higher risks from cheatgrass invasion created by more 
frequent wildfires), either individually or in combination, than 
elsewhere in the range. In addition, the PMU's small population size 
(usually less than 100 birds), coupled with the information suggesting 
this unit has a high projected probability of extirpation over the next 
10 years (69.7 percent; Coates et al. 2020, Table 1), leads us to find 
that this portion meets

[[Page 18098]]

the screening criteria of whether substantial information exists 
indicating the population occurring here may be threatened or 
endangered.
    We then proceeded to the significance screening question, asking 
whether there is substantial information indicating that this portion 
of the range (i.e., the Pine Nut PMU) may be significant. As an initial 
note, the Service's most recent definition of ``significant'' within 
agency policy guidance has been invalidated by court order (see Desert 
Survivors v. Dep't of the Interior, No. 16-cv-01165 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 24, 
2018). Therefore, for purposes of this analysis the Service is 
screening for significant portions of the range by applying any 
reasonable definition of ``significant.'' Biological importance/
significance is often considered in terms of resiliency, redundancy, or 
representation.
    We evaluated the available information about the portion of the DPS 
that occupies the Pine Nut PMU in this context, assessing its 
significance in terms of these conservation concepts, and determined 
the information did not substantially indicate it may be significant. 
Sage-grouse in this PMU exhibit similar habitat use and behaviors to 
sage-grouse in the remainder of the Bi-State DPS; thus, there is no 
unique observable environmental usage or behavioral characteristics 
attributable to just this area's population. While unique genetic 
characteristics have been documented in the PMU's birds, including 
haplotypes not present elsewhere in the DPS, particularly in the 
northern portion (Oyler-McCance et al. 2014, pp. 1303, 1308), we note 
that each of the five other populations in the DPS also exhibit unique 
genetic characteristics and haplotypes. So although there is genetic 
differentiation between the Pine Nut PMU and other PMUs, we found no 
information indicating that the Pine Nut PMU's genetic characteristics 
represent a unique or significant adaptive capacity compared to the 
remainder of the DPS.
    In addition, the Pine Nut PMU has the smallest number of birds 
compared to the other PMUs in the DPS, making up approximately 5% of 
the total population (see Table 1 above), and there is very limited 
movement of these birds into occupied areas of other PMUs. For the 
northern portion of this PMU, which has very few birds and little to no 
lek attendance reported in recent years (see the description of the 
Pine Nut PMU in Range and Population Estimates above), there has been 
no detected movement of birds to other PMUs. There is some movement of 
birds between the southern portion of Pine Nut PMU and the Desert 
Creek-Fales PMU and the Bodie PMU to the south, but this has involved 
only very few birds.
    Overall, we found no substantial information that would indicate 
the Pine Nut PMU may be significant. While the Pine Nut PMU provides 
some contribution to the DPS's overall ability to withstand 
catastrophic or stochastic events (redundancy and resiliency, 
respectively), and to adapt to changing environmental conditions 
(representation), the best scientific and commercial information 
available indicates that this contribution is very limited in scope due 
to its small population size and isolation from other populations. 
Therefore, because we could not answer both screening questions in the 
affirmative, we conclude that the Pine Nut PMU portion of the range 
does not warrant further consideration as a significant portion of the 
range.
    In addition to the Pine Nut PMU, we identified another portion of 
the DPS, the White Mountains PMU, where the information regarding 
projections of extirpation probability suggests the population may be 
experiencing a disproportionate response to threats. While the 
magnitude of most threats acting in this PMU (e.g., threats associated 
with cheatgrass, infrastructure, recreation, grazing, predation, and 
drought) are generally lower than the remainder of the range, it also 
has a projected high probability of extirpation (75.1 percent; Coates 
et al. 2020, Table 1). These projections were calculated from limited 
data, as completing surveys was difficult given the area's remoteness 
and being at the highest elevation for the Bi-State DPS, and as a 
result, the authors note that some leks needed to be omitted from the 
analysis due to data quality issues, leks could have been missed, and 
the model may underrepresent abundance for that PMU (Coates et al. 
2020, p. 36). (Coates et al. 2020, pp. 9, 36). However, though the 
model may underrepresent abundance (and thus over represent the 
probability of extirpation to some degree), out of an abundance of 
caution, we proceeded under the premise that this portion of the range 
meets the screening criteria of whether substantial information exists 
indicating the population occurring here may be threatened or 
endangered.
    Subsequently, as with the Pine Nut PMU, we then proceeded to the 
significance screening question, asking whether there is substantial 
information indicating that this portion of the range (i.e., the White 
Mountains PMU) may be significant. As in the Pine Nut PMU, sage-grouse 
in the White Mountains PMU exhibit similar habitat use and behaviors to 
sage-grouse in the remainder of the Bi-State DPS; thus, there is no 
unique observable environmental usage or behavioral characteristics 
attributable to just this area's population. In the White Mountains 
PMU, unique genetic characteristics have been documented in the PMU's 
birds, including haplotypes not present elsewhere in the DPS (Oyler-
McCance et al. 2014, pp. 1304, 1308). However, although there is 
genetic differentiation between the White Mountains PMU and other PMUs, 
we found no information indicating that the White Mountains PMU's 
genetic characteristics represent a unique or significant adaptive 
capacity compared to the remainder of the DPS.
    Additionally, the White Mountains PMU has relatively few birds 
compared to most other PMUs in the DPS. Though exact counts are not 
available due to the isolated nature of this PMU, recent surveys have 
found only two leks, with between zero and nine males documented per 
lek per year (NDOW 2018, unpublished data). Historical evidence 
suggests bird densities in this area have always been low (Bi-State 
Local Planning Group 2004, p. 108); Service 2020, pp. 31-32). 
Additionally, there has been no recent recorded movement of birds into 
occupied areas of other PMUs. Though a potential connectivity corridor 
exists between populations in the South Mono and White Mountains PMUs, 
the vegetation within this corridor has apparently changed due to 
woodland succession, and an aerial survey suggests that current 
vegetation is not suitable sage-grouse habitat (Bi-State Lek 
Surveillance Program 2012, p. 36; Service 2020, pp. 29-30).
    Overall, we found no substantial information that would indicate 
the White Mountains PMU may be significant. While the White Mountains 
PMU provides some contribution to the DPS's overall ability to 
withstand catastrophic or stochastic events (redundancy and resiliency, 
respectively), and to adapt to changing environmental conditions 
(representation), the best scientific and commercial information 
available indicates that this contribution is very limited in scope due 
to its small population size and isolation from other populations. 
Therefore, because we could not answer both screening questions in the 
affirmative, we conclude that the White Mountains PMU portion of the 
range does not warrant further consideration as a significant portion 
of the range.

[[Page 18099]]

    Because we did not identify any portions of the Bi-State DPS entity 
where: (1) It may be in danger of extinction or likely to become so in 
the foreseeable future; and (2) it may be significant, a more thorough 
significant portion of the range analysis is not required. Therefore, 
we conclude, based on this screening analysis, that no portions warrant 
further consideration through a more detailed analysis, and the Bi-
State DPS is not in danger of extinction or likely to become so within 
the foreseeable future within a significant portion of its range. Our 
approach to analyzing significant portion of the species' range in this 
determination is consistent with the courts' holdings in Desert 
Survivors v. Department of the Interior, No. 16-cv-01165-JCS, 2018 WL 
4053447 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 24, 2018); Center for Biological Diversity v. 
Jewell, 248 F. Supp. 3d, 946, 959 (D. Ariz. 2017); and Center for 
Biological Diversity v. Everson, 2020 WL 437289 (D.D.C. Jan. 28, 2020).

Determination of Status

    Our review of the best scientific and commercial data available 
indicates that the Bi-State DPS of greater sage-grouse no longer meets 
the definition of a threatened species. Therefore, we are withdrawing 
our proposed rule to list the DPS as threatened. Consequently, we are 
also withdrawing the associated proposed 4(d) and critical habitat 
rules.

References Cited

    A complete list of references cited in this rulemaking is available 
on the internet at http://www.regulations.gov and upon request from the 
Reno Fish and Wildlife Office (see  FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT).

Authors

    The primary authors of this document are the staff members of the 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Species Assessment Team and the Reno 
Fish and Wildlife Office.

Authority

    The authority for this action is the Endangered Species Act of 
1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.).

Aurelia Skipwith,
Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 2020-06384 Filed 3-30-20; 8:45 am]
 BILLING CODE 4333-15-P