RENO, Nev. (MyNews4.com & KRNV) -- The sage grouse is a symbol of Nevada's wildlife, found in 15 of the 17 counties in the Silver State. But a decades-long threat to their habitat could lead to the species being declared threatened.
Experts say the decline in these iconic birds is a sign that Nevada is losing its signature sage brush landscape, and time is running out to make changes and stop the problem from becoming worse.
The State Director of BLM Nevada Amy Lueders says the sagebrush habitat is very much the foundation of Nevada. "It's in the state song. It's on the state seal. It's very much a part of what this state is."
But wildfires have damaged and destroyed a significant amount of the sage brush habitat. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service State Supervisor Ted Koch says the effects have more than decimated the population of sage grouse, a bird that relies on sage brush for survival. "The number of sage grouse left is quite a bit less than half of what originally occurred."
"The Endangered Species Act is sort of the emergency room for conservation, so I think maybe you can argue that we've already missed a lot of opportunities to remove these threats."
Conservation Biologist John Tull says more important than the number of birds is the trend. "We've consistently seen, for 20 or 30 years, a steady drop in numbers."
Leuders says that drop is a sign of a bigger problem. "It's not about a bird. It's not about what are we doing to protect the sage grouse. It's really about what do we do to protect this habitat that has so many things dependent upon it."
Those are things ranging from other animals like mule deer and pygmy rabbits, to recreation. "Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 nearly unanimously because they wanted to protect the ecosystems upon which we and all other species depend," said Koch.
So the habitats, spanning much of Nevada and the Great Basin could be federally protected. The Fish and Wildlife Service has the power to list the species as threatened or endangered to ensure their survival.
Tull says these classifications are unacceptable. "If we get to a point where, even if we're listing a species, we've already failed."
Nevada Department of Wildlife Director Tony Wasley says a listing determines who has management authority. "It's never a good thing to lose state control over a species."
Koch added, "We've seen this problem coming for many decades, and some would say we've not been nearly proactive enough."
But it's a complicated problem, because Wasley says the biggest threats to sage grouse are coming from nature itself. "The invasive species and fire issue, which has been identified as the primary threat in the Great Basin. We see increased fire frequencies, increased fire intensity, and we're losing our sage brush habitats and they're being replaced by cheatgrass."
The birds' behavior demands a variety of sage brush habitats, said Wasley. "They rely on huge chunks of land for various life stages. Where the birds strut and mate is different than where they nest, which is different from where they rear their young, which is different from where they winter."
The greater sage grouse population spans millions of acres across 11 states. Nevada alone cannot prevent a threatened listing.
"Any one of those states could throw the balance toward the need to list because the Fish and Wildlife Service makes a determination across the range of the species, not on a state by state basis."