Newspaper column: Let states continue efforts to protect sage grouse without listing

Greater sage grouse

Perhaps there is still hope that aggressive conservation and mitigation efforts by Nevada and the 10 other states where greater sage grouse range can stave off a listing of the ground-dwelling birds under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a decision that would have an economic impact on mining, agriculture, logging, oil and gas exploration, rights of way, electricity transmission lines and recreation.

The latest ray of hope comes from a decision by the Interior and Agriculture departments this past week to withdraw a proposal to list the bi-state sage grouse under ESA. In October the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate as threatened the distinct sage grouse population found along the northern California-Nevada border.

The original plan was to set aside nearly 1.9 million acres in Carson City, Lyon, Douglas, Mineral and Esmeralda counties in Nevada, as well as land in Alpine, Mono and Inyo counties in California, as critical habitat for the remaining 5,000 or so bi-state sage grouse.

Fish and Wildlife opened a comment period and then extended it when evidence came in that the bi-state grouse population was healthier than first reported.

The deadline for a decision on the bi-state grouse was April 28. The deadline for a decision on the greater sage grouse is September of this year.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell credited the decision to relent on listing the bi-state grouse to local efforts to preserve habit and limit impact. “What’s more, the collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and California are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development,” Jewell was quoted as saying in a press release.

Gov. Brian Sandoval said the “announcement highlights the critical partnerships that must exist for our conservation strategies to be effective and demonstrate that sage grouse and economic development can coexist in both the bi-state area and across the range of the greater sage grouse.”

When Sandoval makes the argument to not list the greater sage grouse he now has a 30-page “Sage-Grouse Inventory” published in March by the Western Governor’s Association listing various conservation efforts taking place in Nevada, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming to slap down on the table.

The inventory shows Sandoval has included $5.1 million in his fiscal year 2015-17 budget for sage grouse conservation efforts. Additionally, the Nevada Mining Association members have developed habitat conservation plans on 1.2 million acres.

Companies such as Noble Energy, which is exploring for oil and gas in Elko County, and other such companies are voluntarily restricting operations in ways that promote conservation.

Nevada’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council has been meeting regularly for several years, working on implementing and building upon recommendations from the Governor’s Sage-Grouse Advisory Committee. Various state agencies have spent over $7.4 million since 2012 on greater sage grouse conservation.

Elko County alone has spent more than $100,000 “to provide greater sage grouse management, conservation, preservation and rehabilitation measures, strategies and funding sources to … benefit sage-grouse without the loss of the county’s heritage, culture and economy.” None of that was federal money.

Efforts are being made across the West to fight the encroachment on sagebrush range by pinyon and juniper, which should require little more than a herd of goats, a few chainsaws or brush hogs.

Earlier this month lawmakers in Carson City were pressing forward with Assembly Joint Resolution No. 2, which would address one of the major causes of sage grouse population declines. The resolution asks Congress to remove or alter protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 for the common raven. Raven populations have exploded across the West because development of power lines and fences and pinyon and juniper give the birds higher perches from which to spy and attack sage grouse nests to eat the eggs.

“A known cause of decline in the sage grouse population is egg depredation by the common raven, and research conducted at Idaho State University has suggested that reductions in the raven population significantly increase sage grouse nest success,” AJR2 reads in part

Sen. Pete Goicoechea, a Eureka Republican, said federal agencies permit killing a few ravens but not nearly enough.

Perhaps, all those coordinated efforts will sway Interior to give conservation efforts a chance.

A version of this column appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

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