In 2015 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that years of science-based protections by federal and state land use plans had substantially reduced risks to more than 90 percent of the greater sage grouse’s breeding habitats across its 173 million-acre range.
Thus, its extinction no longer imminent, the breed was removed as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Despite this finding the Obama administration unilaterally instituted draconian land use restrictions across 10 Western states intended to prevent any presence of the non-native, invasive species known as mankind.
But the Interior Department under Montanan Ryan Zinke is displaying an uncommon outbreak of common sense.
Just this past week the Bureau of Land Management canceled Obama’s prohibition of mining on 10 million acres of federal lands across six Western states, including Nevada. The BLM also announced plans to invite public comments on reworking land use plans that a Nevada federal judge had determined were illegal.
Greater sage grouse (BLM pix)
In a press release the BLM reported the withdrawal of 10 million acres was unreasonable, because mining affected less than 0.1 percent of sage grouse range.
“The proposal to withdraw 10 million acres to prevent 10,000 from potential mineral development was a complete overreach,” said acting BLM Director Mike Nedd. “Secretary Zinke has said from the beginning that by working closely with the states, who are on the front lines and a valued partner in protecting the health of these lands, we can be successful in conserving greater sage grouse habitat without stifling economic development and job growth. And that’s what we intend to do — protect important habitat while also being a good neighbor to states and local communities.”
The 10 million acres had been off-limits to mining for two years, but that restriction expired Sept. 24.
Gov. Brian Sandoval issued a statement saying, “I support Secretary Zinke’s action to cancel this withdrawal and terminate the environmental analysis associated with it. Mining has not been identified as a widespread significant threat to the sage-grouse and I appreciate the Department of Interior recognizing the overreach of this action, which had such significant economic impact on our state mining and exploration industries.”
Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt said of the BLM’s decision, “I am gratified that the BLM has accepted our basic argument, which is that we can balance conservation of the sage grouse without injuring the economic lifeblood of Nevada’s local communities. In our suit, we consistently urged that the BLM failed to properly take into account Governor Sandoval’s well-supported and convincing comments about the many shortcomings of the 2015 plan.”
On March 31 in a suit brought by the state of Nevada, nine counties, several mining companies and a ranch, Nevada federal Judge Miranda Du ruled Interior land agencies erred in preparing environmental impact statements for 2.8 million acres of land primarily in Eureka and Humboldt counties and must prepare a supplemental statement.
BLM’s Nedd said of the decision to rework the environmental impact statement, “The BLM is committed to being a good neighbor and cooperating with its partners at all levels of government, including states, as well as tribal leaders, industry and conservation groups, ranchers, and other stakeholders throughout the amendment process. During this process, we are particularly interested in hearing from the many governors whose states put hard work and time into collaborative efforts to develop the existing plans. We welcome their input.”
Sandoval has complained in the past about Nevada’s input on sage grouse protection being ignored.
Nevada Mining Association President Dana Bennett was quoted as saying of the BLM change of direction, “A wholesale land withdrawal that encompassed 20 times more land than all mining activity combined did little to address the risk of fire and invasive species that threaten the species and its habitat.”
Of course the usual environmentalist reaction was one of doom and gloom. “This move shows Zinke’s total contempt for imperiled species and the places they need to live,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Zinke might as well form a shotgun posse to kill off these animals directly. The Trump administration is perfectly willing to wipe out sage grouse, and a host of other species, to reward its industry friends.”
Interior’s own draft environmental impact statement estimated its grouse restrictions in Nevada alone would reduce employment by 739 jobs every year for the next 20 years.
Jobs and wildlife can coexist when just a little common sense is applied.
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.