RENO, Nev. — Off-road vehicle enthusiasts are suing the U.S. Forest Service over the bistate sage grouse in Nevada and California, arguing that a protection plan enacted this year could increase fire danger across rangeland habitat of the bird already proposed for threatened status.
The California Four Wheel Drive Association and off-road groups in the Sierra and Nevada’s Pine Nut Mountains say the protection measures in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest weren’t included among the alternatives subjected to scientific scrutiny and public comment as required by federal environmental laws.
Their lawsuit was filed this month in U.S. District Court in Reno.
The bistate grouse is distinct from and doesn’t live across as big an area as the greater sage grouse, which is at the center of a dispute over Trump administration efforts to roll back protections adopted under President Barack Obama in a dozen Western states.
But there are similarities in the ongoing legal battles over development near bistate grouse habitat.
A formal proposal to list the bird as threatened under the Endangered Species Act was rescinded by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015, only to be reinstated by a federal judge earlier this year.
The off-road groups say that between the draft stage and final adoption of guidelines regarding off-road travel, the agency nearly doubled the size of buffer zones around bird breeding grounds, known as leks, and extended the season when motorized traffic is banned.
“These changes were not specified in any alternative in any of the multiple (environmental reviews) available for public comment,” according to plaintiffs that include the Sierra Trail Dogs Motorcycle and Recreation Club, Pine Nut Mountains Trails Association, American Motorcyclist Association and Blue Ribbon Coalition.
Forest Service spokeswoman Erica Hupp said the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.
The status of Forest Service protections ordered in 2016 isn’t clear given the court ruling on listing earlier this year.
U.S. District Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero in San Francisco ruled in May the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored its own best scientific evidence when it reversed course three years ago on its 2013 proposal declaring bistate grouse threatened.
The judge said the wildlife service wrongly concluded in 2015 that voluntary conservation measures in the works were adequate to stem habitat loss resulting from urban sprawl, livestock grazing, wildfires, invasive plants, mining and other development.
In August, Spero reinstated the proposed listing and gave the agency until Oct. 1, 2019, to publish a new decision.
He also ordered reinstatement of the proposed designation of more than 2,800 square miles of critical habitat potentially subject to development restrictions along the Sierra’s eastern front — an area bigger than Delaware.
The original Forest Service preferred alternative would have barred off-road travel within 3 miles of an active lek during primary breeding season March 1 to May 15.
The final decision expanded the buffer zones to 4 miles and extended the ban through June 30.
That forced the Trail Dogs to postpone by a month a 250-mile motorcycle race traditionally run in mid-June to the weekend of July 14-15, 2019.
Racing through high-desert sage brush after June 30 “greatly increases fire risk and safety concerns due to greater heat and reduced moisture,” according to the lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Reno.
“It is nearly impossible to design a viable route system in the project area ... that does not include a route passing within 4 miles of such leks,” the lawsuit said.
Conservationists who have sued to protect the bistate grouse say it is already threatened with extinction.
“Off-road vehicle riders appear willing to push them over the edge,” said Ileene Anderson, a Los Angeles-based biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.