Nevadans welcome review of sage grouse land use plans

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who had filed a lawsuit attempting to overturn the Interior Department’s 2015 land use plan to protect greater sage grouse, is praising the recent decision by the Trump administration to review those plans.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed an order establishing an internal review team to evaluate federal and state sage grouse plans and report back to him in 60 days. He specifically called on the review team to consider local economic growth and job creation, as well as protection of the birds.

“While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor,” said Zinke after issuing the order. “State agencies are at the forefront of efforts to maintain healthy fish and wildlife populations, and we need to make sure they are being heard on this issue. As we move forward with implementation of our strategy for sage-grouse conservation, we want to make sure that we do so first and foremost in consultation with state and local governments, and in a manner that allows both wildlife and local economies to thrive. There are a lot of innovative ideas out there. I don’t want to take anything off the table when we talk about a plan.”

Though Interior decided to not list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, its land use plan essentially barred mineral exploration on 3 million acres in Nevada and locked out most economic activity on 10 million acres in a dozen Western states.

Laxalt was quoted in a press release as saying, “My office remains dedicated to protecting the interests of Nevada and ensuring that federal agencies take our unique needs and concerns into account. We look forward to working with Secretary Zinke to develop a plan that protects the greater sage grouse in ways that recognize Nevada’s expertise and commitment to this important issue, and that also preserves and expands Nevada jobs in sectors like mining and ranching. An intelligent sage grouse plan can do both successfully.”

In October 2015 Laxalt filed suit on behalf of the state and was joined by nine Nevada counties, several mining companies and a ranch. The suit repeatedly stated that the various federal land agencies ignored state and local input on the land use plan.

Nevada’s senior Sen. Dean Heller also welcomed the Zinke review.

“I am pleased that Secretary Zinke is initiating a review of the previous administration’s sage-grouse land use plans and committing to work with those who know how to best protect threatened species: states and localities,”

Heller stated. “As I have consistently maintained, allowing states like Nevada to have a seat at the table as an active participant in the discussion surrounding conservation efforts is central to the viability of the sage-grouse. Moving forward, I am hopeful that the Department of the Interior will partner with Governor Sandoval and the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to begin targeting the real threats to sage-grouse and their habitat: invasive species, wildfire, and wild horse overpopulation.”

News accounts quoted Zinke as saying the Republican governors of Nevada, Utah and Idaho all prefer that the sage grouse plans give them more flexibility and rely less on habitat preservation “and more on numbers” of birds in a given state.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has complained in the past about Nevada’s input being ignored. In one letter he stated, “I believe the proposed land withdrawal will not be able to show any measurable results except for the demise of the mineral exploration industry in Nevada. The urgency to implement the withdrawal proposal prior to conducting the proper analysis needed to evaluate the efficacy of the action and socio-economic impact of the action is unclear,” adding that the agencies involved have “provided no science or analysis at any level to support the rationale” for excluding mining operations.

Interior’s draft environmental impact statement estimated its grouse restrictions would reduce economic output in Nevada each year by $373.5 million, cost $11.3 million in lost state and local tax revenue and reduce employment by 739 jobs every year for the next 20 years.

And it all may be for naught. According to a 2015 Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies survey, the population of greater sage grouse had grown by nearly two-thirds in the previous two years — before the implementation of strict land use plans.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

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