Back to be­gin­ning on sage grouse

Ac­tivists fear changes will lead to list­ing bird

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - NEVADA & THE WEST - By Scott Son­ner

SPARKS — Fed­eral sci­en­tists and land man­agers who have been craft­ing strate­gies to pro­tect a ground-dwelling bird’s habi­tat across the Amer­i­can West for nearly two decades are go­ing back to the draw­ing board un­der a new Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion edict to re­assess ex­ist­ing plans con­demned by ranch­ers, min­ers and en­ergy de­vel­op­ers.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials are wrap­ping up a se­ries of pub­lic meet­ings with three ses­sions start­ing Tues­day in Utah ahead of a Nov. 27 cut­off for com­ment on In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke’s order last month to con­sider re­vi­sions to land man­age­ment amend­ments for the greater sage grouse that were adopted un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Zinke said he wants to make sure the amend­ments don’t harm lo­cal economies in 11 western states and al­low the states to have max­i­mum con­trol over the ef­forts within their bor­ders.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists say it’s a thinly veiled at­tempt to al­low more live­stock graz­ing and drilling, sim­i­lar to Trump’s ef­forts to roll back na­tional mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tions but on a much larger scale. They warn it could land the hen-sized bird on the en­dan­gered species list in 2020 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice is sched­uled to re­view its 2015 de­ci­sion not to list it.

“They ap­pear to be dis­man­tling the whole land-planning amend­ment sys­tem and start­ing over,” said Patrick Don­nelly, the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity’s Ne­vada state di­rec­tor.

“It’s re­vi­sion­ist his­tory,” he told a Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice of­fi­cial dur­ing a scop­ing meet­ing-turned-brain­storm­ing ses­sion at a Sparks ho­tel-casino Wed­nes­day.

In­stead of record­ing pub­lic tes­ti­mony, agency of­fi­cials marked up easel pads with lists of crit­i­cisms, con­cerns and sug­ges­tions. About 80 par­tic­i­pants moved be­tween five break­out groups in­clud­ing “min­er­als,” ”live­stock graz­ing” and “wildlife and veg­e­ta­tion.”

They treaded fa­mil­iar ground. Dis­agree­ment reigned over the size of pro­tec­tive buf­fer zones around grouse breed­ing grounds, states’ role in set­ting fed­eral pol­icy and whether cat­tle or wild horses cause more habi­tat degra­da­tion. There was gen­eral agree­ment that in­va­sive cheat grass is fu­el­ing one of the big­gest threats, cat­a­strophic wild­fires, but lit­tle con­sen­sus on what to do about it.

Ne­vada Farm Bureau Vice Pres­i­dent Doug Bus­sel­man said re­search sug­gests prop­erly reg­u­lated graz­ing re­duces fire fu­els. But he said ex­ist­ing pol­icy is “tak­ing a re­stric­tive ap­proach … and then watch­ing mas­sive fires sweep across the land­scape, set­ting up the process for ex­pan­sion of cheat grass, then more fire.”

The U.S. House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee heard the same thing last month from Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion rancher who blames graz­ing re­stric­tions for a wild­fire that wiped out his fam­ily’s win­ter graz­ing al­lot­ment this year.

“In the process of pla­cat­ing anti-graz­ing ac­tivists, fed­eral agen­cies have made the No. 1 threat to the greater sage grouse in Idaho worse,” Bedke said.

But Repub­li­can Gov. Matt Mead of Wy­oming, Demo­cratic Gov. John Hick­en­looper of Colorado and Demo­cratic Gov. Steve Bul­lock of Mon­tana have ex­pressed con­cern that al­ter­ing ex­ist­ing plans could un­der­mine ef­forts to pre­vent a list­ing. Ne­vada Gov. Brian San­doval also has cau­tioned against whole­sale changes, al­though he ap­plauded Zinke’s re­cent lift­ing of a tem­po­rary ban on new min­ing claims across about 15,600 square miles adopted un­der Obama.

“We all duked it out on these plans,” said Karen Boeger, a re­tired teacher and mem­ber of the Ne­vada Chap­ter of Back­coun­try Hunters and An­glers who pre­vi­ously served on a Bureau of Land Man­age­ment ad­vi­sory board. “We’ve hardly got­ten out of the chute. Let’s give it a chance.”

The bureau’s act­ing deputy di­rec­tor, John Ruhs, un­der­stands the frus­tra­tion.

“A lot of folks have been en­gaged in this topic for a long time. Some have been at the ta­ble go­ing back 15 years or more,” Ruhs said.

“We’re try­ing to find the best meth­ods to al­low all uses of the land to oc­cur and still en­sure pro­tec­tion of habi­tat,” he said. “It’s a tall order.”

Scott Son­ner The As­so­ci­ated Press

John Ruhs, left, act­ing deputy di­rec­tor of the U.S. Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, talks to Patrick Don­nelly, Ne­vada state di­rec­tor for the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity, dur­ing a pub­lic meet­ing Wed­nes­day in Sparks.

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