Editorial: Will collaboration on sage grouse finally happen?

Nevada has every reason to feel like a slighted wallflower. We keep getting invited to the big sage grouse dance, but never get asked to dance.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and Attorney Adam Laxalt and others have complained bitterly that state and local input on how to protect the sage grouse population and still conduct economically productive endeavors on the land the birds occupy have been roundly and almost universally ignored by the federal land agencies.

A lawsuit filed by Laxalt on behalf of the state, several counties, a couple of mining firms and the owners of a ranch against the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management and others used a variant of the word “ignore” 22 times to describe how state and local objections to land use plans were received. In fact a motion filed by the state in that suit points out that after dismissing local input three top Interior Department officials met privately, after the public comment period was closed, with environmental groups to obtain their “buy-in” on a land use plan.

Sage grouse workshop session.

Sage grouse workshop session.

So, pardon us if we scoff at the cheery BLM press release from this past week under the headline: “Collaboration the key to Sage Grouse success.”

The press release announced the creation of Nevada-based working groups comprised of federal and state agencies and key stakeholders “to identify regulatory flexibility and improve communication and outreach between themselves and the public.”

The working groups resulted from a two-and-a-half day workshop in Reno in early December.

“A key part of the workshop was the emphasis on establishing and improving relationships between the agencies and stakeholders, “ said John Ruhs, state director for the BLM in Nevada. “We also spent time getting to know people as individuals as opposed to just identifying them by their interest or agency.”

He was further quoted as saying, “In the case of the amendments for the Greater sage grouse plans in Nevada, a collaborative network of local, state and federal partners is essential for protecting the sagebrush ecosystem while ensuring multiple uses.”

Though Ruhs has a reputation for being a straight shooter — he brokered a deal that allowed Battle Mountain district ranchers to temporarily continue grazing after permits had been denied — he does answer to the federal land bosses in Washington, from whence just two weeks ago came a proposal to ban mining on 10 million acres in the West — a quarter of that in Nevada alone and most of that in Elko County — to protect sage grouse.

Sandoval fired off a retort saying, “Today’s announcement does nothing to protect the greater sage-grouse, but does cripple the mining and exploration industry. It is an unfortunate end to our collaborative efforts with this administration. I am hopeful the new administration will consider the limited ecological benefits of this withdrawal.”

Now senior Nevada U.S. Sen. Dean Heller called the ban an 11th-hour attack on the West by a lame duck president.

“Federal land grabs are never popular in Nevada and the latest one by the BLM is no different. A mining ban does little to help sage grouse and will devastate northern Nevada’s future economic competitiveness,” Heller said in a press release. “I will partner with the next administration to reverse this decision and to ensure the BLM focuses on the real threats to sage grouse, like wildfires, instead of locking up Nevadans’ public lands. Those are the types of efforts, rather than these harmful mining bans, that will benefit our environment while also allowing our economy to grow,” Nevadans can only hope that with the changes coming in Washington these working groups might actually be listened to.

National BLM Director Neil Kornze — a former aide to Nevada Sen. Harry “Lock Up the Land and Throw Away the Key” Reid — has announced he is stepping down on Jan. 20, the day Donald Trump is inaugurated president.

Trump, meanwhile, has nominated Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who grew up in a logging town, to head the Interior Department.

That BLM press release announcing the working groups quotes JJ Goicoechea, chairman of the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, as saying, “While this process was just the beginning, there was a collective recognition of key issues to address and an overall feeling that if we don’t collaboratively work toward solutions, we will fail individually.”

Perhaps, with a different band in Washington playing a different tune, Nevada will finally get to dance.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Governor offers a way to save sage grouse and mining

Gov. Brian Sandoval is imploring the Interior Department to accept a state-created alternative to its proposed draconian plan to remove millions of acres of federal public land from productive use — specifically mining — as a way of paying lip service to saving greater sage grouse habitat.

In September the federal agency declined to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act and instead issued land use plans that bar mineral exploration and development on nearly 3 million acres within Nevada and restricts grazing and public access on a total of 16 million acres in the state.

Greater sage grouse (Rawlins Daily Times via AP)

On Jan. 15, Sandoval sent a letter to Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management, which is a division of Interior and the agency overseeing the bulk of federal public lands in the state, asking him to accept a state proposal that would essentially swap parcels of land to be protected. Instead of restricting mining on 555,000 acres as the federal land use plan outlines, the state plan would restrict mining on 394,000 acres, but the swap would protect an additional 44 active sage grouse leks, as breeding grounds are called. The swap also could free up as many as 3,700 existing mining claims.

The governor warned in a press release this past week that failure to negotiate in good faith would result in his administration pursuing legal options.

Such a legal option is already being pursued, though the governor has insisted it is premature. The state, nine counties, three mining companies and a ranch have filed suit in federal court to block the land use plan.

A Reno federal judge refused to grant an injunction but a trail could take place this summer.

In his letter, Sandoval argues that the grouse protection restrictions would have serious economic impact on the Nevada economy and jobs.

A single lithium mining project in Humboldt County is estimated to have a direct economic impact of $2.5 billion over the life of the project and indirect impact of $3.4 billion, while creating 9,000 person-years of employment and half a billion dollars in salaries. State and local tax revenues are expected to exceed $100 million.

Lithium is used to make lithium-ion batteries used in electric and hybrid cars. The Tesla Motors/Panasonic battery manufacturing plant near Sparks is expected to consume a huge amount of lithium.

“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,” Sandoval pointedly states. “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.

As for the threats to sage grouse habitat, Sandoval notes, as he has repeatedly in the past, that wild horse overpopulation, invasive species and huge wildfires that consume hundreds of thousands of acres at a time pose a far more significant danger to the grouse than mining, but little, if anything, is being done about those threats.

Additionally, there is relatively little reliable information on just how threatened the grouse population really is. Sandoval’s letter notes one major grouse habitat region nearly doubled in population during a recent three-year period.

Though Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stated that valid existing mining claims are exempt from any withdrawals, the governor points out that the definition of such valid claims cannot be found in the Federal Register. There is a question as to whether unpatented mining claims — on which millions of dollars in annual fees have been paid but the claims are not yet worked — will be classified as valid existing claims. Sandoval said this needs to be clarified.

In a press release this past week, Sandoval described his proposal as a win-win. “The proposal detailed in the state’s response delivers a ‘win-win’ solution in an effort to achieve the mutual goals of preserving our thriving mining industry, protecting the sage-grouse and enhancing its habitat and maintaining our state’s vast potential for future economic development opportunities. With the correct plan and management Nevada’s mining industry, the sage-grouse, and future economic development can all coexist and flourish in the Silver State,” he wrote.

BLM Nevada spokesman Stephen Clutter told The Associated Press, “We will certainly give serious consideration to these ideas as well as the other scoping comments we have received.”

That would be a change from past behavior.

A version of this column appears 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, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Someone needs to commit to realistic wild horse population control

Wild horses in corrals in Carson City (R-J photo by John Locher)

Twenty Republican members of Congress, including Nevada’s Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei, sent a letter earlier this month to Neil Kornze, the director of the Bureau of Land Management, asking him to provide suggestions for how to rein in the exploding wild horse population in the West, which is damaging water resources, overgrazing the range and jeopardizing their own health, as well as that of other wildlife and the livelihoods of ranchers.

The letter notes that almost half of the 100,000 horses under BLM management are located in holding facilities at a cost of $50,000 over the lifetime of each captive horse and that adoptions of wild horses have fallen 70 percent in the past decade. Currently more than 60 percent of the BLM’s $70 million annual budget for managing wild horses and burros is consumed by warehousing the animals.

When Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 there were about 25,000 wild horses and burros on the range, but since then the number of animals on public lands has more than doubled to 58,150 — 9,000 of those were born in the past year alone. Half of these free roaming feral horses are in Nevada.

“We believe it is clear that the current management strategy of wild horses and burros has proven ineffective,” the letter says. “Wildfire, drought, and invasive species exacerbate poor range conditions caused by overstocked HMAs (herd management areas). Across 10 western states where the BLM manages wild horses and burros, every state exceeds AML (appropriate management level). In some cases, like Arizona, there are HMAs that surpass the agency-determined AML by more than 9 times the allowable herd size. We understand long-term fertility control methods take time to develop, and once implemented will maintain horse populations at more appropriate levels. In the interim, however, steps must be taken to decrease herd sizes to allow rangeland recovery and effective management of future populations.”

The letter does not pretend to lay the entire blame for the current situation on the managers of the BLM, and asks guilelessly what congressional action could be taken to give the agency the flexibility it needs to accomplish herd management.

The letter discusses fertilization suppression efforts at length.

In fact, this past summer the BLM announced it would initiate 21 research projects with a goal of maintaining a sustainable population of wild horses and burros at a cost of $11 million. The BLM says it plans to spend that money on university and U.S. Geological Survey scientists, primarily to develop longer lasting fertility-control vaccines, as well as efficient methods for spaying and neutering wild horses.

That could be the long-term solution, but the four-page congressional letter hints at one point at what is really the best and cheapest short-term solution, asking rhetorically whether “humane euthanasia” might be among the population control methods.

That 1971 wild horse law specifically states, “The Secretary (of Interior) shall cause additional excess wild free roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible.”

But budgets since 2009 has stipulated that no funds are to used “for the destruction of healthy, unadopted, wild horses and burros …”

Of course, any hint at the necessity to slaughter these beautiful — though too often emaciated and crippled due to overgrazing and brutal combat between the studs for the mares healthy enough to breed — animals results in apoplectic outrage and threats of litigation from self-styled, but wrongheaded animal lovers.

But that is the only workable solution that will allow contraceptive efforts to work in the long- run.

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



Newspaper column: To ‘negotiate’ with feds, you have to speak their language

Sandoval and Laxalt disagree on how to challenge Interior Department land use plans to protect greater sage grouse

Will the real Brian Sandoval please stand up?

This past week the Nevada governor stood virtually alone in rebuking Attorney General Adam Laxalt for joining in a lawsuit seeking to block Interior Department plans to enforce draconian land use restrictions to protect the vast habitat of the greater sage grouse across 11 Western states.

“Prematurely embroiling the state in costly litigation at this juncture threatens to compromise future collaborative efforts to implement the Nevada plan developed over the last four years …” says a statement released by Sandoval’s spokeswoman while he was out of the country. “The governor believes that joining a lawsuit now will chill ongoing discussions …”

How do you chill “discussions” that have been frozen solid?

In July in a 12-page letter to the acting head of the state Bureau of Land Management, John Ruhs, the same Brian Sandoval railed that the state had been stonewalled and ignored in efforts to draft plans for protecting sage grouse. He noted that the final 3,500-page land use plan released in May left unresolved, dismissed or ignored issues raised by the state.


Sandoval wrote that the plan “contains many new elements that disregard best science, Nevada’s state and local plans, and federal law. It is disappointing that this process has changed from a collaborative, proactive approach, to a now heavy-handed, federal approach that uses status-quo approaches and relies primarily on information from federal officials in Washington, D.C. …”

The acting director replied within a week with vague promises of clarifications and a couple of “respectfully declines to adopt.”

Sandoval fired off an appeal to the head of the BLM calling the state director’s response “specious in nature and nearly identical to the text used” in previous denials.

Five weeks later the head of the BLM, Neil Kornze, a former aide to Harry Reid, wrote the governor, “I … respectfully deny your appeal,” though he did “look forward to our continued coordination …”


Now Sandoval thinks he can negotiate with the same people who have repeatedly dismissed, ignored, snubbed and denied his every entreaty?

Laxalt is speaking the Interior Department’s language. These Washington bureaucrats live by sue and settle. That’s how we got the September deadline for listing grouse as endangered or not — a settled lawsuit from self-styled conservation groups.

A funny thing happened on the way to the listing. Interior discovered the grouse are not endangered. The agency stated that “the charismatic rangeland bird does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act,” because its population has stabilized.

Instead, without the legal nicety of listing, Interior immediately announced arbitrary land use restrictions.

The next day Elko and Eureka counties and two mining companies filed a federal lawsuit. This past week Laxalt filed an amended suit that added as plaintiffs the state, seven more counties — Churchill, Humboldt, Lander, Lincoln, Pershing, Washoe and White Pine — another mining company and a Humboldt ranch. An initial hearing is scheduled for Nov. 12.

The suit accuses Interior of violating the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the General Mining Laws, the Taylor Grazing Act and numerous other federal laws and agreements. The mining companies and the ranch say new restrictions could put them out of business.

In a press release announcing the litigation, Laxalt noted that the federal plan bars mineral exploration and development on 3 million acres within Nevada alone and creates restrictions on grazing and public access on more than 16 million acres in the state.

The decision to sue was applauded by Sen. Dean Heller, the state’s three Republican representatives, numerous local elected officials and business leaders.

Rep. Mark Amodei declared, “When the Department of the Interior completely ignores input from Nevada’s Environmental Impact Statement, I believe no tool should be left in the shed, and one of those tools is litigation.”

Rep. Cresent Hardy agreed, “Those who live closest to the land are the best stewards of it. This has been proven particularly true in Nevada, where locally driven conservation efforts helped keep the sage grouse off of the endangered species list. But the federal government is actively choosing to ignore that reality.”

Rep. Joe Heck, who is running for the Senate seat now held by Reid, observed that Nevadans developed a plan to protect sage grouse habitat, but “that plan was rejected by bureaucrats at the Department of the Interior who have no connection to the land and won’t have to deal with the consequences of their land-use plan.”

Laxalt is speaking Interior’s language, governor.

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.

Update: U.S. attorney replies to suit and basically threatens to reopen potential to list greater sage grouse as endangered.

The suit: Nevada v Dept of Interior Am Complaint

U.S. attorney threatens to revisit listing of sage grouse in reply to lawsuit

Calf being roped at Ninety-six Ranch, one of plaintiffs against Interior Department

In reply to a lawsuit filed by the state of Nevada, nine counties, three mining companies and a cattle ranch over restrictive land use plans intended to protect greater sage grouse, U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden appears to be threatening to resurrect the threat of listing the birds under the Endangered Species Act.

Bogden wrote that the Fish and Wildlife Service had “emphasized that its determination that a listing was not warranted was dependent upon the ‘continued implementation of the regulatory mechanisms and conservation efforts …'” including the land use plan initiated when Interior announced the non-listing.

Actually, the FWS reported in the Federal Register that grouse populations have been relatively stable over the past 15 years already.

Plaintiffs also have failed to demonstrate that they face any immediate irreparable injury,” Bogden wrote in seeking to deny an injunction against further implementing the land use plans, though the counties, miners and ranchers spelled out costs and the potential for the businesses to fail due to the plans.

The day after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the greater sage grouse would not be listed, but would instead be protected by a voluminous and sweeping land use plan covering 10 Western states, Elko and Eureka counties and two mining companies filed a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction against the plan.

This past week the state and others joined the suit. The suit: Nevada v Dept of Interior Am Complaint

A hearing had been scheduled on the original lawsuit for the middle of February.

Bogden claims, “An injunction would undo four years of collaboration and could undermine FWS’s finding. The alleged harms to Plaintiffs do not outweigh the interests of the other stakeholders, including the government, in keeping the Plan Amendments fully in place pending the Court’s full consideration of Plaintiffs’ claims on the merits.”

But G0v. Brian Sandoval and others have repeatedly accused the federal land agencies of ignoring their input and stonewalling their appeals. Sandoval in a letter to BLM Director Neil Kornze called responses to the state’s concerns arbitrary an capricious.

In a press release announcing the litigation, Attorney General Adam Laxalt noted that the federal plan bars mineral exploration and development on 3 million acres within Nevada alone and creates restrictions on grazing and public access on more than 16 million acres in the state.





Editorial: Imperious BLM agents still behaving like they are better than us

Burning Man from 2013. (RGJ/AP photo)

Who says the United States does not have a royal class?

The bureaucrats at the Bureau of Land Management just don’t think like the rest of us. They are downright imperious — in more ways than one.

A year ago they sent an invading army of heavily armed agents — with snipers on hilltops and attack dogs on the roads — to intimidate Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy while hired wranglers rounded up his cattle from BLM land and agents destroyed water tanks and pipelines and shot his bulls.

Now, the BLM bureaucrats are demanding that they be treated like pampered royalty at the annual Burning Man festivities in the Black Rock Desert.

The Reno newspaper reports that the BLM is demanding that the festival organizers build a $1 million luxury facility replete with trailers, flush toilets, washers and dryers and vanity mirrors for the comfort of BLM executives and agents and unspecified VIPs. Festival organizers say the cost of permits and complying with BLM demands have risen from $1 million in 2011 to nearly $5 million this year.

This year’s eclectic event — described as celebration of art and free expression, whatever that means — is scheduled to take place between Aug.30 and Sept. 7. It annually attracts about 70,000 people and generates about $35 million for the local economy.

In addition, the Reno paper says emails it has received spell out a demand that the facility be stocked with hot-and-cold running desserts and a 24-hour full-service kitchen providing a potentate’s menu of gourmet meals and snacks that include (we kid you not) 10-ounce steaks, 18-ounce pork ribs, poultry, ham, fish, vegetables, potatoes, bread, salad bar with five toppings and three dressings and desserts.

Specifically the desserts to be served in the desert must include Drumsticks, Choco Taco, assorted ice cream flavors, Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches, as well as cakes, cookies, pies, cobblers, puddings and pastries.

An army travels on its stomach.

The Gazette-Journal said the emails cited BLM Special Agent Dan Love of Salt Lake City as the person behind many of the BLM requests. Love led the BLM standoff with Bundy and his armed supporters. He did not return the paper’s requests for comment.

The Bundy standoff ended peacefully when the BLM backed down and released the cattle it had rounded up.

We are not sure how this Burning Man shakedown will end. Just don’t stand between a bureaucrat and the buffet and be sure to bow and curtsey when they pass by.

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

Cattle confiscation in Bunkerville comes to an abrupt end, but what comes next?

Cliven Bundy forks hay. (R-J photo by John Locher)

The Director of the Bureau of Land Management Neil Kornze — a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid and a former Elko resident who just recently was named to head up the agency — released a statement today calling off the confiscation of privately owned cattle from public range land near Bunkerville. His statement implied a fear that continuing the operation might devolve into gunfire:

“As we have said from the beginning of the gather to remove illegal cattle from federal land consistent with court orders, a safe and peaceful operation is our number one priority. After one week, we have made progress in enforcing two recent court orders to remove the trespass cattle from public lands that belong to all Americans.

“Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public. 

“We ask that all parties in the area remain peaceful and law-abiding as the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service work to end the operation in an orderly manner. 

“Ranching has always been an important part of our nation’s heritage and continues throughout the West on public lands that belong to all Americans. This is a matter of fairness and equity, and we remain disappointed that Cliven Bundy continues to not comply with the same laws that 16,000 public lands ranchers do every year. After 20 years and multiple court orders to remove the trespass cattle, Mr. Bundy owes the American taxpayers in excess of $1 million. The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially.”

Yes, it is a matter of fairness and equity. At one time there were 52 cattle ranchers in Clark County. Cliven Bundy, whose family has run cattle in the area since 1880, long before there was a BLM, is the last of the breed.

Twenty years ago the BLM, as it is wont to do, came to Bundy and flat out told him he could not graze his federal allotment in the spring to prevent his thousand-pound cows from stomping on little baby desert tortoises, as recounted by then-Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Vin Suprynowicz.

Up until then, Bundy paid the BLM so much per head per month to “manage” the public lands.

His cattle were being kicked off the range even though biologist Vern Bostic had demonstrated decades earlier that desert tortoises do better where cattle are grazed, the column said. He stopped paying for such “management.”

Bundy was also told to remove all his water tanks and the lines that feed them from local springs. Never mind that water rights are granted by the state and federal government is not allowed to interfere with those rights.

The column reported:

“But what’s real-world, empirical evidence provided by local yokels with calloused hands and funny western drawls, to ‘experts’ who’ve got the proper college degrees?

“The only time cattle will fatten on a desert range is in the springtime. Cliven explained to the BLM guys that he had no big feed lot on which to hold his cattle during the spring — even if he could afford to do so, with hay now at $400. The only option they were giving him was to sell his cattle for slaughter in February, and then to buy new stock and put them on the land in July. He says the BLM guys told him that would be fine.”

“But from mid-summer through February, cattle on a desert range LOSE weight. Besides which, ‘You can’t bring in cattle from elsewhere and start them in this desert,’ Bundy explains. ‘If they’re not raised on this range by their mamas, who show them what to eat, those cattle starve.'”

“But you can’t outlast the federal government, nor beat them with logic, principle, hard work or evidence.”

According to reports today, federal agents have brought in backhoes and torn up Bundy’s water pipes. Will the federal government reimburse him for his lost water rights? Sounds like a willful act of sabotage.

Also, there is no word as to what will happen to the 400 head of cattle the federal government has already rounded up.

Even though Bundy is in the headlines, the same thing is happening quietly all over the state.

J.J. Goicoechea — veterinarian, rancher, chairman of Eureka County Commission and past president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association — says the federal land agencies are using drought, sage hens and wild horses and any other excuse to kick ranchers off the land.

Goicoechea estimates Nevada has lost half of its breeding cows over the past three years — approaching 300,000, down from more than a million in the 1980s.

“We’re on a bubble right now. If we get this reversed and we get some moisture and we get what we need to get a green up, some of these guys can survive,” Giocoechea said. “They can bring their cattle back and see over the next couple of years a rebuild. If they liquidate and go away that next generation isn’t going to be there to fill their shoes. … The next 12 months will be critical to the livestock industry in the state of Nevada, and that will dictate whether we’re here in 10 years or not.”

Fox News quoted Bundy as saying“Years ago, I used to have 52 neighboring ranchers. I’m the last man standing. How come? Because BLM regulated these people off the land and out of business.”

Bundy, 67, is the last rancher standing in Clark County. It is questionable, in the face of BLM mismanagement, how long he and others of his ilk can survive.