Solar and wind energy development would be excluded or subject to added scrutiny across Northern Nevada, according to a new environmental impact report. Controls would be put in place for geothermal and oil and gas exploration over 15 million acres and restricted outright in 1.5 million acres of the most sensitive areas where the range birds flock.
There would be potential effects on mining and grazing in the best remaining areas for the grouse, whose population has dropped from the millions to about 200,000 to 500,000 across the West.
The effort was described by naturalists as the largest ever wildlife conservation project on public lands.
The proposed land plans for all or part of 16 counties in Nevada and parts of five counties in California was multiplied across eight other Western states where the Department of Interior is updating management plans covering 165 million acres — an area the size of Texas — in consideration of the sage grouse.
Clark County and the Nellis Test and Training Range are the only parts of Nevada not covered by the plan, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
The chicken-sized range bird with the puffed-out chest and feathered starburst tail is being considered for listing as an endangered or threatened species, a decision to be made by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service by September.
It remains to be seen whether the federal management plans, with initiatives being undertaken by private and state landholders, could be enough to avoid a listing that could bring with it deeper impacts on the region’s land-based economy.
“The West is rapidly changing — with increasingly intense wildfires, invasive species and development altering the sagebrush landscape and threatening wildlife, ranching and our outdoor heritage,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement from Wyoming, the state most covered by sage grouse habitat.
“As land managers of two-thirds of greater sage-grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving western economy,” she said. “We are laying important foundation to save the disappearing sagebrush landscape of the American West.”
In the courts and on Capitol Hill, energy companies and developers have clashed with conservationists over the sage grouse.
Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, whose Northern Nevada district is most affected by the sage grouse, inserted a provision in an appropriations bill last year denying the Interior Department funding to finalize an endangered species decision, but department attorneys found a way to work most of the way around it.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday praised the Obama administration’s “unprecedented collaboration” with states, local governments and stakeholders to balance habitat protection with the needs of rural communities.
The land plans “are the best chance we have of keeping the bird off the endangered species list,” Reid said.
Not only sage grouse but 350 other species rely on healthy sagebrush habitat, including elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope, Interior officials said.
“It has been impressive and downright inspiring to see the BLM engaging in true landscape level planning focused on the need for conservation as part of managing public lands,” said Nada Culver, senior director at The Wilderness Society. “We’ve seen the progress that can be made when you work with local communities, county and state leaders, alongside energy developers and the conservation community.”
But an unhappy Amodei said the department disregarded Nevada recommendations to focus less on land restrictions and more on reducing the threat of wildfires that wipe out grouse habitat.
“Collaboration, I guess, is in the eyes of the beholder,” he said. “Really? They listened to the people of Nevada? This is the height of federal administrative arrogance. This is a kick in the ass to the people of Nevada who have the greatest stake in preserving their resources and also being responsible with respect to what they do with their land.”
“These restrictive plans may be well-intended, but they are coming from the wrong direction,” added Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev. “Leave conservation efforts to local people who know and use the land best, not Washington bureaucrats who have no idea what it’s like to live and work with our state’s natural resources below ground and the magnificent species above ground.”
Interior officials said the land use plans took a layered approach that offers the highest levels of protection to the most valuable habitat. They classify the strongholds important to the bird’s survival as “sagebrush focal areas.” About 3 million acres of such focal areas were identified in Nevada.
The plan also classified sage grouse “priority habitat” (9.9 million acres in Nevada) and “general habitat” (6.1 million acres in Nevada) subject to varying levels of special management.
Interior officials said the “vast majority” of land within priority habitat have “zero to low potential” for fossil energy, wind or solar development.
Another 6.5 million acres in Nevada was tagged as “other habitat” where sage grouse are found but which the BLM said is not being subjected to land controls other than encouraging users to follow best practices in their activities.
Interior officials said 55 million acres in Nevada controlled by the BLM and the Forest Service were studied before 17 million acres were set aside for updated management plans.
The plans released Thursday will be finalized after a 60-day review by governors and a concurrent 30-day protest period, according to the Interior Department.
Amodei predicted Republicans in Congress will mount a new effort to delay or kill the plans.
“We are going to see another ugly, counterproductive Congress-versus-the-executive-branch fight on this,” he said.