Nevada grapples with possible listing of sage grouse

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Nevada grapples with possible listing of sage grouse

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Nevada Fish & Wildlife Service

Nevada's federal and state lawmakers address the loss of sage grouse habitat.

 

Nevada's federal and state lawmakers are ramping up efforts to address the loss of sage grouse habitat and the possible listing of the species as endangered.

Last month, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing a population of sage grouse as threatened. It's known as the bi-state sage grouse because it lives in portions of Western Nevada and Northeastern California.

Kyle Davis with the Nevada Conservation League says it was a wake-up call.

"The simple fact is that we were able to take some steps for conservation measures in the bi-state area, but for the most part we were hoping the regulatory approach we used in the past would be adequate, and it certainly isn't."

That will need to change, and soon.

If the listing goes forward, the federal government could designate more than a million acres of land as critical habitat and take over management. Activities like mining, grazing and recreation could be quite restricted. Those using the land will feel that economic impact. But it's minimal compared to the possible listing of the greater sage grouse, a separate population spread across more than 20 million acres in Nevada, as well as 10 other Western states.

Its fate will be determined in 2015. And all the stakeholders in Nevada are rushing to prevent that from happening, or, if nothing else, they're doing some damage control.

"I know it's a regional species, but if our part of the region is being taken care of then we ought to be treated as such."

That's Republican Congressman Mark Amodei, who represents most of Northern Nevada. Part of the problem, he says, is that even if Nevada does come up with substantive ways to preserve the habitat, the listing could still go forward because so many other states are in play.

In light of that, he has co-sponsored legislation, introduced by Kentucky's Rand Paul, that would give governors more control of regulating endangered species in their states.

"Nobody's anti-environment. You just try to find the balance. What do we do that's appropriate based on the science and the resource and not, quite frankly, the politics of one side or the other. Governors are the folks most answerable in their state."

Amodei says he'll soon introduce legislation specific to Nevada. Along with funding hazardous fuels reduction and habitat restoration, it will try to differentiate Nevada from other states with the bird and as a result perhaps minimize federal involvement.

One measure Amodei says may be controversial to some will be eliminating the federal environmental review process, called NEPA, for habitat restoration projects, which would speed up that work significantly.

Kyle Davis with the Nevada Conservation League says giving the state more control and doing away with federal regulations would be a cause of concern for him.

"For example, somebody thinks, oh, this will be a great habitat improvement project that will have benefits. But once it's submitted to that scientific review, we understand that, no, it's not going to work in that case."

Davis says before the state receives special status, it should have to prove it's able to do real on the ground conservation. That's essentially what the state is trying do now. One problem, though, is that federal agencies are responsible for much of Nevada's habitat and they're underfunded, especially for this kind of undertaking.

"It is such a huge overwhelming landscape. You know, it is pretty easy to go out and spend 1 million dollars on a 10-acre project, because it is expensive work, it's very remote, you have to travel to get there."

Tim Rubald is the heading up the special council put together by Governor Sandoval to address sagebrush ecosystems. They're currently trying to start a conservation credit system that would require those who want to use a piece of habitat, be that for agriculture or development, to pay for conservation work or do it themselves first.

Rubald says that could mean the cost of entry for some areas is just too high.

"If there is a habitat area, and it's the only type of habitat (and I am just dreaming here) within say 100 miles, that's going to be some pretty expensive territory to tear up."

It's essentially a market-driven approach and one that Rubald calls out of the box. If the bird does get listed, he hopes they have a strong conservation plan in place, so the federal government doesn't close off huge swaths of land.

"It'd be great if the Fish and Wildlife Service says, 'Okay, Nevada, you keep doing what you're doing. We'll monitor it and make sure you walk the straight and narrow, but keep doing it.'"

"It's a lot of unknowns, to be honest."

That's John Tull who helps advise the state council.

"As a conservation biologist, I feel like there are places that need to be protected in ways that sage grouse habitats are not going to be further affected."

Tull says a crediting system, like the one the state is pursuing, will need to recognize those vital places. The reason behind the loss of habitat in Nevada is, possibly, more complicated, he says, than Wyoming where oil and gas expansion is a major driver.

"That's something that may fit traditional regulatory mechanisms and models a little more cleanly or clearly. We are dealing with catastrophic, nature caused events."

In other words, massive wild fires.

Tull says he believe Nevada can come up with a creative solution to handle the problem, but it requires action now.