Interior Department orders relaxing of sage grouse habitat restrictions

This week 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 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.

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.

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 on more than 16 million acres of public land in Nevada altogether. 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 the previous administrations have been 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.

 

 

Newspaper column: State makes some progress in challenging sage grouse rules

Greater sage grouse (BLM photo)

Nevada won a temporary reprieve from the Interior Department’s plans to enforce sweeping restrictions on land use as a means of protecting greater sage grouse habitat, but failed to convince a federal judge to put those plans on hold entirely.

In a recent opinion, Nevada federal Judge Miranda Du ruled Interior 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, but she denied a request to issue an injunction that would have blocked the federal land agencies from implementing burdensome resource management plans. (Du opinion)

The suit was brought by the state of Nevada, nine counties, several mining companies and a ranch.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who filed the suit on behalf of the state, said of Du’s ruling, “The federal government’s greater sage-grouse land-use plan obstructs Nevada’s growth and development, and harms our ranchers, miners and recreation workers. The court’s decision demonstrates the importance of the state joining this lawsuit, which affords us the opportunity to represent Nevada’s interests in court and at the negotiating table. We are encouraged by the fact that the court accepted our argument that the greater sage-grouse plan was fatally flawed in one of its central respects — namely, the court’s finding that the sagebrush focal areas violated that National Environmental Policy Act. We will continue to study the opinion and evaluate next steps.”

In denying the sweeping injunction, Du fell back on an old Catch-22 that has foiled other challenges to federal public land policies, saying there has been no “final agency action” and therefore the legal challenge is not ripe. The problem with that is the agencies never take final action, because they deem every decision to be appealable and changeable at some point in the future even though their current enforcement is already hampering economic development.

In the past the order to rework the environmental impact paperwork would have been a futile gesture because the final outcome under the Obama administration would have ended in the same paperwork, but President Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke might make a difference. As a Montana congressman Zinke strongly opposed the Obama administration plan to protect the grouse without formally listing it under the Endangered Species Act.

At a 2015 hearing, he asked why “would Washington, the bureaucracy, given there are no sage grouse here … decide what is best for Montana or the western states, that have a deep, traditional concern for wildlife management?”

Just a month ago, Zinke told a gathering of Western ranchers that the Interior Department “hasn’t been the best neighbor,” adding that they would probably like changes he is planning for those sage grouse protection plans.

“We’re going to manage our properties just like you [ranchers] would manage your private lands,” Zinke said, according to published reports. “Washington, D.C., needs to understand that we work for the people, not the other way around.”

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service must rework their maps because they were severely flawed.

Judge Du noted, for example, that in Eureka County the agencies “incorrectly designated the town of Eureka, US Highway 50, State Route 278, County landfill, power lines, multiple subdivisions of homes, farms with alfalfa field and irrigations systems, and hay barns” as priority habitat management areas for grouse.

There is much at stake for Nevada and the other Western states facing land use restrictions for mining, grazing, oil and gas exploration, recreation and other beneficial uses.

In Humboldt, Judge Du noted that livestock grazing would be reduced by 25 percent. The county’s landfill also was labeled priority habitat.

The Interior’s sage grouse draft environmental impact statement for just Nevada and five other states issued in December estimated that its proposed 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.

For the 20-year life of the land restrictions, the six states would lose $16 billion in economic output and 38,700 jobs, as well as $520 million in tax revenue.

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.

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: BLM sage grouse guidelines will bury land users in paperwork

The Bureau of Land Management this past week issued eight guideline memos instructing federal land managers in 11 Western states as to how they are to carry out policies intended to protect greater sage grouse — a move that threatens to bury ranchers, miners, oil and gas explorers and construction companies under a mountain of paperwork and impose lengthy delays, while doing little to actually protect the birds.

The move comes a year after the Interior Department declined to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act but instead issued reams of land use restrictions meant to protect the grouse, even though the number of male grouse counted in leks across the West had increased by 63 percent between 2013 and 2015, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Restrictions are being imposed even though sage grouse are legally hunted in many Western states, including Nevada.

Like the record of decision on sage grouse management issued this past September, the memos largely ignore one of the biggest threats to the colorfully plumed, ground-dwelling grouse — predators, primarily ravens and coyotes — and address almost entirely human economic endeavors. The 90-page record of decision used the word predator only once.

The memos, signed by BLM Deputy Director Steven Ellis, open with statements of purpose that say they are to provide guidance for analyzing and establishing thresholds for land use, with separate memos addressing grazing permits and general surface disturbances.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, immediately fired off a statement denouncing the guidelines as a ploy by the Obama administration to block oil and gas development.

“These plans, written as if the sage grouse were listed, are proof it was an underhanded, de facto listing scheme that further oppresses Western states,” Bishop said in a written statement provided to The Associated Press.

Republican Congressman Joe Heck, who is running to replace Harry Reid in the Senate, commented, “With these new guidelines, the administration continues to disregard the input of state and local stakeholders, like our ranching and mining families, whose livelihoods depend on being good stewards of the land. Unfortunately, the guidelines have more to do with avoiding costly lawsuits from special interests, like my opponent Catherine Cortez Masto’s biggest campaign donor, the League of Conservation Voters, than they do with actual conservation. And Nevada’s economy will pay the price.”

If there is a bright spot in any of this micromanaging from Washington, D.C., bureaucrats, it is that two days prior to the memos being sent out the Interior Department inked a deal with Newmont Mining and its ranching subsidiary to jointly manage sage grouse habitat so the company can continue mining operations and exploration, as well as grazing, in Nevada. Wildlife and natural resource agencies of the state helped broker the deal.

A statement from Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office called the agreement a first of its kind in scope and scale. It was not mentioned that Newmont was under considerable duress to cut a deal with federal land agencies, which held all the cards, though Sandoval called the deal a good-faith, public-private partnership.

“Through this historic agreement, Newmont has committed to implementing a wide-ranging, landscape-level conservation plan that includes voluntarily managing certain areas of its private rangelands and ranches in Nevada to achieve net conservation gains for sagebrush species,” Sandoval said in a press release.

Though the BLM guideline memos envision grazing restrictions to protect grouse, the Newmont deal specifically notes that one of the first pilot projects to be implemented under the agreement will use targeted grazing to reduce cheatgrass, an invasive species that contributes to the frequency and intensity of wildfires.

The Newmont deal also makes a vague reference to implementing “practices to reduce human-induced advantages for predators of greater sage-grouse” — presumably fewer fence posts and power line poles from which ravens can scout for nests with eggs.

The BLM’s handling of the sage grouse issue remains in active litigation in federal court, where the agency is being sued by Nevada, nine rural counties, two mining companies and a ranch, with Attorney General Adam Laxalt taking the lead, despite Sandoval’s reluctance.

Laxalt has stated that the BLM’s grouse efforts blatantly disregard the input of Nevada experts and stakeholders in violation of federal law.

The BLM’s own economist has estimated that the grouse habitat conservation efforts will cost Nevada $31 million and 493 jobs annually.

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.

Greater sage grouse (Forest Service photo)

Greater sage grouse (Forest Service photo)

Editorial: Court should force feds to start over on sage grouse assessment

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt has filed what he is calling his final brief in the lawsuit challenging the Interior Department’s economically crippling land use restrictions under the guise of protecting greater sage grouse, perhaps signaling that the case is nearing culmination.

As with previous filings Laxalt accuses the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, divisions of the Interior Department, of violating the law and ignoring scientific evidence when it concocted a 341-page pronouncement in September 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 envisions restrictions on grazing, resource development, solar and wind energy, and public access on more than 16 million acres of public land in Nevada altogether. This is being done even though the government declined to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

Greater sage grouse (BLM photo)

The legal challenge in federal court is being pressed by the state, nine rural counties, two mining companies and a ranch.

“Along with a majority of Nevada counties, my Office has been pushing back against the federal government’s overreaching sage grouse land plan for almost a year,” Laxalt is quoted as saying in a press release accompanying the court filing. “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.”

In the brief, the state argues that the plaintiffs have standing to bring the suit, a matter disputed by the government, because of the harm that will befall the state and county governments, as well as the private businesses. The BLM’s own Economic Impact Summary, prepared by BLM economist Josh Sidon in 2015, “estimates a loss of $31 million and 493 jobs annually for livestock, oil and gas, geothermal and wind in Nevada, stating that Nevada bore the largest impact from reduced wind energy development, with Elko and White Pine Counties hit the hardest.”

But that low balls the impact because it does not take into account the loss of revenues due to minerals being left in the ground. Laxalt argues that the BLM ignored or misrepresented in its analysis the impact of lost mining claims on 2.8 million acres in Nevada, including the loss of $32 million in investments by one mining company.

A previous brief pointed out that the land use plan jeopardizes development of a mine that could be worth $3 billion — 1.4 million ounces of gold and 21 million ounces of silver.

The current brief notes, “Defendants ignore the importance of discussing how mining claims in the SFA (sagebrush focal areas) will be impacted by the proposed withdrawal. Defendants mischaracterize the emails discussing this very issue,which criticize the agencies’ failure to disclose that half of all U.S. mining claims are located in Nevada: ‘… it is a serious omission not to include mining claim data. How can impacts to locatable minerals be adequately addressed if this data is not known?’” That last quote is from an internal BLM email discussing the failings of their own analysis.

The court should grant the relief sought by the plaintiffs to force the Interior Department to start over with a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, one that accurately reflects the economic and scientific facts instead of being crafted to fit a predetermined political agenda.

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: Baker on track to replace water tank this summer

Main Street in Baker, Nev.

The residents of the tiny community of Baker at the entrance to Great Basin National Park can breathe a little easier now.

David Sturlin, chairman of the Baker Water and Sewer General Improvement District, reports that the Bureau of Land Management has granted a permit to replace the town’s leaking 250,000-gallon water tank that sits on BLM land and the district signed a contract this past week with a company out of Sparks to do the work.

The district plans to build a new water tank on a 30-by-100-foot site next to the current tank and then demolish the old tank. The district’s board had received fast track approval for a loan from the State Revolving Fund, which receives funding under the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, contingent upon receipt of a BLM permit.

That permit appeared to be in jeopardy this past fall when the Interior Department, of which the BLM is a division, decided the greater sage grouse would not be listed under the Endangered Species Act but instead issued thousands of pages of land use restrictions as a means of protecting the bird.

When water district board members met with a BLM representative, they were hit with a list of demands and told an expensive and time-consuming environmental impact statement would be needed due to those new grouse regulations.

The plight of the Baker water district was even brought up as an issue in a federal lawsuit by the state, Elko, Eureka, Churchill, Humboldt, Lander, Lincoln, Pershing, Washoe and White Pine counties, as well as three mining companies and a ranch attempting to get a federal judge to block the land use plan because of the harm it was causing. A federal judge declined to do so.

But Michael Herder, BLM Ely District manager, said this past week that those issues have been resolved and a permit has been granted.

“The construction plan is consistent with the sage grouse conservation measures that are in the land use plans that we have,” Herder said. “We did grant an early start date so they are going to start around June 1st.”

He said this is so the Baker water district can get the new tank constructed and the old tank removed all in one season, thus minimizing the impact on sage grouse. He said it saves the district some money and provided the minimal impact on the grouse.

“It worked out really well. It’s a win-win situation at least from our perspective,” Herder said.

Sturlin said, “The BLM has given us an early start date. We are going to try to meet that June 1st date and get the thing started as rapidly as possible.”

He believes the project can be completed by October. “June to October is the window that we’re shooting for,” he said, adding that they think they can do the painting in September, especially if they have an Indian summer, and then in October they can do the certifying and testing, even if it’s cold, so long as the paint is cured.

When the contractor does the cross connection of the new tank to the water pipeline, the old tank will be removed quickly, Sturlin said.

He also said the people at the State Revolving Fund, which is funding the project, have been “super partners” in this.

“Basically, this is a grant,” the chairman said. “It’s a 100 percent forgiveness on this tank replacement. They came up with the funds and they bumped us up in the priority and everything. State Revolving Fund really should get a pat on the back.”

Though there was considerable trepidation earlier this year over the impact the Interior Department’s new sage grouse land use plan might have on the project, Sturlin said, “I believe the local people with the BLM really, really helped us out a lot. I believe they’re going to be real easy to work with going forward.”

The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund is providing more than $640,000 to pay for the new welded steel storage tank for the Baker water district.

Sturlin said the local BLM officials are as interested in getting the project done as are the people of Baker, “I think we’ve got a good partnership going right now.”

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.

Editorial: You may not ruffle a single sage grouse feather

Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives. — Ronald Reagan

Let’s see what tips the scales for your typical federal bureaucrat. Ah, here is an open window into the mind of one now. Let us look in.

It is March, and for nearly a year the Baker Water and Sewer General Improvement District has been trying in vain to get permission to replace its leaking 250,000-gallon municipal water tank on a tiny 30-by-100-foot tract of Bureau of Land Management-controlled land. The leak poses a threat to fire safety as well the risk of bacterial contamination of the town’s sole water supply.

An editorial comment about the plight of Baker residents? (From Great Basin website)

But the safety and health of the 100 or so homes and businesses that use the water have been weighed and found wanting when compared to the potential perturbance of greater sage grouse, even though the Interior Department said the birds did not warrant being listed under the Endangered Species Act and are still legally hunted in Nevada.

The town of Baker must jump through hoops to assure the federal bureaucrats that anything they do to assure their own safety does not disturb a chicken-sized bird with a showy mating ritual.

This was on display at a recent meeting of the White Pine County Board of Commissioners, as recounted by The Ely Times.

The commissioners were attempting to referee between the tiny town and the mammoth and intractable federal agency.

BLM Ely District Manager Michael Herder was also present.

“We’re here to address any issues,” Herder told the commissioners and representatives of the water district.

Asked if the water district could begin construction to replace the tank by May 1, Herder’s reply revealed just where his agency’s priorities lie.

“If we meet the criteria,” he was quoted as saying. “Realistically speaking, biologically speaking, it’s in the best interest of the sage grouse if the new tank is completed and the old one removed in one season. If we can limit the time period that both tanks are in place, that’s what we’re looking for.”

Herder added under further questioning that, “Our attorneys are already looking at it. Completion in one year is very appealing. As long as there is a net conservation gain, it’s doable. We still have to do bird surveys before construction can happen, but Baker GID can qualify for exceptions to expedite the process, as long as there is a net conservation gain. We’re confident it’s not going to be an issue. After the end of the nesting season, there’s between a week and a month before construction can start.”

But in December officials said the BLM’s delays in approving the project could jeopardize its state loan under the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, without which they could not afford the replacement. They also said the BLM is asking them to complete a 12-month project in only four months.

There you have it. People are an invasive species to the federal bureaucrats, encroaching on their pristine range. The health and safety of the citizenry is of no concern if it ruffles a single grouse feather.

A version of this editorial appeared this past week in many 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. It ran as a column in the Elko Daily Free Press.