Earlier this month Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered the implementation of recommendations from a team that reviewed the previous administration’s draconian land use restrictions under the guise of protecting greater sage grouse. The team — which included officials from Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service and representatives from the 11 affected states — called for lifting certain restrictions that impacted economic activity without actually affecting sage grouse populations.
Montana native Zinke’s 55-page order echoed criticisms that were included in various lawsuits brought by several states, including Nevada. Zinke’s order says the changes are not one-size-fits-all, the very words used by Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt a year ago about litigation he had filed to block the land use restrictions.
Back when he sued the federal government over its sage grouse land restriction, Laxalt stated, “As our latest brief again demonstrates, the Bureau of Land Management’s rushed, one-size-fits-all sage grouse plan not only violates multiple federal laws, but also the agency’s own regulations. The BLM blatantly disregarded the many Nevada experts and stakeholders, and failed to consider how its plan would impact Nevadans. This approach to regulation is as dismissive to our State as it is illegal, and I remain dedicated to protecting the interests of Nevada and ensuring that agencies follow the law and take the state’s concerns and interests into account.”
Shortly after Zinke announced the changes, Laxalt lauded the move, saying, “I am glad to see this progress on an issue important to so many Nevadans. I agree with Secretary Zinke that the federal government and Nevada can protect the sage-grouse and its habitat, while also ensuring that conservation efforts do not undermine job growth and local communities.”
Nevada’s lawsuit accused the various federal land agencies of violating the law and ignoring scientific evidence when it concocted a 341-page pronouncement in 2015 that 10 million acres of public land in 16 Western states — 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 that there would be additional reviews on grazing permits. The plan envisioned restrictions on grazing, resource development, solar and wind energy, and public access to public land in Nevada. This was being done even though the government declined to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
Specifics in Zinke’s order include recognizing that “proper livestock grazing is compatible with enhancing or maintaining Greater Sage-Grouse (GRSG) habitat” and orders incentives be used to encourage grazing practices that improve conditions conducive to grouse habitat.
While the previous administration failed to even consider predator control as a means of protecting grouse, the Interior Department order calls for research into both lethal and non-lethal predator control. In 1989, the Nevada Department of Wildlife planted 1,400 chicken eggs in 200 simulated grouse nests during the 15-day period when sage hens lay their eggs. All the eggs were destroyed by predators, mostly ravens.
The order also recognizes the need to reduce the overpopulation of wild horses and burros that eat and trample sage grouse habitat, something else the previous administration was lax about.
It also discusses the need to fund fire fuel reduction and fighting invasive species.
It also anticipates flexibility to allow the development of both fluid and solid minerals.
It even calls for experimenting with captive breeding of grouse to enhance the population.
This move by the Interior Department should have a salutary impact on Nevada’s economy. Interior’s own draft environmental impact statement estimated that its previous sage 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.
As for all the doomsaying about grouse populations, 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.
A version of this column appeared this week in 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.