Divisions resurface in Nevada sage grouse plans

CARSON CITY — Deep divisions in Nevada’s approach to sage grouse have resurfaced in the state’s fragile attempt to keep the bird off the list of endangered species and avoid economic consequences for ranching, mining and alternative energy development across large swaths of land.

At issue is whether the state’s course emphasizes protecting industry interests over ensuring the bird’s survival.

Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed a nine-member committee last year to devise a plan to convince the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that Nevada will protect the bird, making federal government intervention unnecessary despite conservationists’ claims it’s threatened with extinction.

In 2010, the federal agency determined that the greater sage grouse warranted protection but that other species took priority. The agency is now under court mandate to decide by 2015 whether the chicken-size bird found in 11 western states still warrants protection, or if plans being put forth by states will eliminate threats to its existence.

Building consensus for those plans has not been easy, nowhere more so than in Nevada, where sage grouse is often referred to in cattle country as a “stupid bird.” Last year rural Elko County interests claimed credit for the ouster of the previous state wildlife director who they deemed too pro-sage grouse.

The governor denied the claim, but new Nevada Department of Wildlife Director Tony Wasley already has gotten a taste of the politically charged fight over how public lands should be used.

Last month, he was chastised when he submitted the state agency’s response to Fish & Wildlife Service on alternatives to protect sage grouse without first passing them through the governor’s appointed Sagebrush Ecosystem Council. The SEC, as it’s called, has representatives from mining, ranching, agriculture, sportsmen, energy, conservation, local and tribal governments and the general public.

J.J. Goicoechea, a Eureka County commissioner, rancher and local government representative, took umbrage when the Department of Wildlife in its comments suggested limiting grazing near sage grouse habitat and more closely monitoring grazing’s effect on the range shared by cattle, grouse and other wildlife.

The council, in its own comments to the agency, said the federal government’s preferred action contradicts mandates to manage public lands for multiple users and ignores benefits of livestock grazing and predator control.

Goicoechea complained the wildlife department’s position “caught us by surprise” and included “anti-mining language.”

Wasley tried to smooth ruffled feathers and submitted a mea culpa to Sandoval.

“I acknowledge and take full responsibility for an unintentional oversight made by the Department of Wildlife in our efforts related to collaboratively developing the state of Nevada’s strategy to preclude the need to list the greater sage-grouse,” Wasley wrote in a Feb. 9 letter to Sandoval. “In the future we will proactively present our concerns to the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council and better coordinate our comment approach.”

But the dustup renewed concerns among some conservationists that scientists at the wildlife agency are being muffled.

“Without NDOW’s ability to speak freely and openly about sage grouse needs, the state of Nevada has no standing to manage sage grouse,” conservationist Tina Nappe wrote in a Feb. 22 email to Goicoechea and her fellow SEC members.

“If you feel it is important to express the views of livestock operators, rural counties and bash the federal government, then perhaps the chairmanship should be passed to someone who can represent a broader segment of the SEC and also Nevada,” wrote Nappe, a former state wildlife commissioner.

Experts think 2 million sage grouse inhabited the West when Lewis and Clark first noted them in 1805. Today their numbers are estimated at about 200,000.

Shrinking and fractured habitat is one of the biggest threats to the bird’s survival, scientists say. Wildfires are blamed for a lot of lost habitat.

Last fall the federal government released a draft Environmental Impact Statement — thousands of pages long — detailing six alternative plans, with one plan being deemed preferable by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S Forest Service. The preferred action would, among other things, exclude or restrict new recreational facilities, wind and solar energy development and mineral development in sage grouse habitat.

Such restrictions would be felt deeply in Nevada with its 17 million acres of sage grouse habitat.

The federal government is now considering thousands of comments received and will release a final environmental impact assessment this year.

Wasley said the wildlife agency’s goal was to take aspects of Nevada’s plan for sage grouse management “and build them into the BLM’s preferred alternative.”

“This is a new process,” he said. “There are nuances that we need to figure out on where best to raise our concerns and how best to vet them.”

Despite her criticisms, Nappe said she’s hopeful the process will work.

“It’s still a beginning and we can make adjustments,” she said Thursday. “I have to be optimistic and I really do care that it succeeds.”

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