Judge denies a Nevada motorcycle race through sage grouse-protected land

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, file) This March 10, 2010, file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a female bi-state sage grouse in Nevada. Conservationists are headed back to court again to try to force the Trump administration to protect the rare game bird along the California-Nevada line where the government keeps changing its mind about whether to add the cousin of the greater sage grouse to the U.S. list of threatened and endangered species.

Reno, Nev. • A federal judge has upheld the U.S. Forest Service’s authority to keep a 250-mile motorcycle race out of sage grouse habitat in Nevada’s high desert, rejecting a lawsuit by off-road vehicle enthusiasts who argued the agency illegally short-circuited the environmental review process.

The lawsuit filed in December 2018 challenged Forest Service rules barring off-road travel within 4-mile buffers around bi-state grouse breeding grounds between March 1 and June 30 in the Mono Basin along the California-Nevada line.

That forced the Sierra Trail Dogs Motorcycle and Recreational Club to postpone the now 25-year-old Mystery 250 dirt bike race traditionally held in mid-June to mid-July, a move the group said greatly increased fire risk and safety concerns due to greater heat and reduced moisture.

The club and others argued that the travel prohibition was broader than previously considered and wasn’t specifically included among alternatives subject to public comment on either the draft or final environmental impact statements issued by the agency.

They said the Forest Service should have been required to conduct a supplemental environmental review to consider the impacts of the broader rules, and that failure to do so was a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in Reno disagreed. She said in a July 7 ruling the standard the agency adopted was a minor variation of the one included in the final environmental review and that a supplemental review wasn't necessary.

Her decision was cheered by conservationists who have been involved in a decade-long legal battle to protect the bi-state grouse and had sided with the Forest Service as federal intervenors in the case.

“This kind of motorized mayhem isn’t multiple use, it’s wildlife abuse,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project.

“The Forest Service is doing the right thing to protect these beautiful birds, which are teetering on the brink of extinction,” added Scott Lake of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The bi-state grouse found only in Nevada and California is related to, but separate from, the greater sage grouse, which lives in a dozen Western states.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the bi-state population is half what it was 150 years ago along the Sierra Nevada eastern front. Anywhere from 330 to 3,305 are believed to remain across 7,000 square miles stretching from Carson City to Yosemite National Park.

The conservationists filed notice of their intent to sue last month after the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed course in March and abandoned its 2018 proposal to list the hen-sized bird under the Endangered Species Act.

The off-road groups said in their lawsuit that between the draft stage and final adoption of guidelines regarding off-road travel, the agency nearly doubled the size of buffer zones and extended the season when motorized traffic is banned.

The Forest Service's original preferred alternative would have barred off-road travel within 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of an active sage grouse gathering area, called a lek, during primary breeding season March 1 to May 15.

The judge ruled that the off-road rules adopted in the final decision fell within the spectrum of alternatives discussed in the final environmental impact statement.

She said the three alternatives generally ranged from no new restrictions to an outright ban, with one alternative in between. She said the one selected falls in between because it placed some limitations in terms of when and where the races can be held, but allows them to occur.

Du said she agreed with conservationists who argued the standard in the final decision “differed in degree, but not in kind, from the alternatives the Forest Service had considered throughout the process.”