Grousing about the grouse

Forget the roses; it’s the war of the grouse.

It might be hard to understand how a small, chicken-sized bird called the Bi-State sage grouse could trigger so much local and Western states-wide controversy and angst for the past decade—until the whole thing is laid bare in a few words at the local board of supervisors meeting.

Although things started off as a complaint by one supervisor about the listing of three amphibians as federally threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act last week, it didn’t take long to figure out that Supervisors Tim Fesko and Larry Johnston were talking about much more.

It was more, even, than a pending decision by the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding listing the local species of grouse for federal protection.

That decision, expected next year, has tied the county up in far more knots than the recent amphibian decision, if only because more acreage and greater possible impacts to both private and public agencies are involved with the grouse issue.

On Tuesday, it came down to radically different world views.

“When you start putting non-humans above humans, I have a problem with that,” said Fesko, the District 3 Supervisor. “It’s bad science all the way around, it’s politically driven.”

“I’m pleased to report that the frogs and toad have been designated,” said Supervisor Larry Johnston. “It’s a good thing when we can co-exist.”

“I’m opposed to my colleague, here,” he said, nodding toward Fesko. “The key thing is how we do it. We still need to work on the grouse, we need to have economic studies, we need more information.”

“They made their decision (about the amphibians) based only on the impacts of how this would affect the government,” said Fesko. “This is bad for humans, this is bad.”

The “grouse issue,” embedded as it has been in a series of conversations between county supervisors, the public and governments over the past decade, came up Tuesday because the federal Fish and Wildlife Service announced late in April that it was postponing a decision on listing the grouse until next year.

The same agency also announced it was postponing a decision to designate “critical habitat” for the amphibians for another year.

Critical habitat designation is the most important factor to most governments and residents when it comes to protecting any potentially protected species, because certain activities that might harm the species, such as grazing, agriculture, and commercial development of the land, could be prohibited.

Both postponed decisions thus move the grouse—and the amphibians—back to center stage for the upcoming year, and judging from the tension between just two members of the Eastern Sierra community, the discussion is going to be anything but simple.