Newspaper column: Federal judge should disarm the Grouseketeers

In order to meet a judicially imposed deadline, in September Interior Secretary Sally Jewell declared that the greater sage grouse — whose habitat stretches across 23 million acres in 11 Western states, including much of Nevada — would not be listed under the Endangered Species Act, but instead imposed a federal land use plan restricting beneficial economic activity in order to protect the bird.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Interior, stated in a 341-page announcement that 10 million acres of public land — nearly a third of that in Nevada — would be taken out of consideration for future mining claims, as well as oil and gas drilling near breeding grounds and there would be additional reviews on grazing permits.

Elko and Eureka counties and two mining companies filed suit in federal court in Reno the next day, calling the plan “arbitrary, capricious and unlawful.”

Greater sage grouse (BLM photo)

Since then the state of Nevada, seven more counties, another mining company and a ranch have joined the litigation in an effort to block implementation of the land use restrictions.

Even though federal Judge Miranda Du has refused to issue an order suspending the land use plan, saying the plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate irreparable harm, Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s office has filed a 50-page motion for summary judgment, saying the federal land agencies were so intent on meeting a deadline and imposing a predetermined political agenda instead of making a scientific analysis that they ignored public input, which violates federal law and should void the action.

Though the objections of Gov. Brian Sandoval and the various counties were entirely ignored, the motion says three top Interior Department officials met privately, after the public comment period was closed, with environmental groups to obtain their “buy-in” on the land use plan.

The motion says the three called themselves the Grouseketeers and identifies them as Secretary Jewell’s top greater sage grouse advisors Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Lyons, Counselor to the Secretary Sarah Greenberger and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Michael Bean.

Though an Associated Press account suggested the self-anointed Grouseketeers “apparently” based their label on the “Mousketeers” of the 1950s televised “The Mickey Mouse Club,” we doubt they saw their operation as Mickey Mouse, though the plaintiffs might. We suspect they were identifying themselves and their “noble” cause more with the original Alexander Dumas swashbuckling characters who defended the King of France.

“The Grouseketeers facilitated a process that suppressed concerns of their own high-level staff who raised the same issues as Plaintiffs: the need for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (“SEIS”), lack of scientific data to support new restrictions imposed at the insistence of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”), and the failure to compile or review readily available information about mineral potential and grazing management on the lands at issue,” the attorney general’s motion for summary judgment declares.

The motion repeatedly cites Interior Department internal memos that show science was ignored in deference to a pre-determined political agenda.

“The agencies omitted an entire body of science that demonstrates that properly managed grazing can be beneficial to GSG (greater sage grouse) habitat,” the motion notes. Yet the Bureau of Land Management entered into the record an erroneous statement that there are “no science-based studies” demonstrating that increased livestock grazing on public lands would enhance or restore sage grouse habitat, ignoring the fact that the state and Elko and Eureka counties submitted just such published scientific findings.

The motion says one mine alone that is jeopardized by the land use plan could be worth $3 billion — 1.4 million ounces of gold and 21 million ounces of silver.

Sandoval and other governors have repeatedly accused the federal land agencies of ignoring their input and stonewalling their appeals.

Laxalt’s motion says the land use maps used by Interior are woefully out of date and BLM officials knew but ignored it. “Top Nevada BLM officials knew that roughly 26 percent (723,000 acres) of the 2.8 million acre Nevada SFA (sagebrush focal area) was not priority habitat — it included lower priority habitat and 75,100 acres of non-habitat,” the motion says.

Fish and Wildlife says these restrictions are needed to protect sage grouse, though its own Federal Register filing states “that over the last 15 years the rate of extinction of leks and the probability of recolonization of leks has been remarkably stable.”

The judge could put a stop to this blatant fiasco in which politics trumps science, but will she?

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

 The opening of the latest meeting of the Grouseketeers?

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