California-Nevada Sage Grouse Plan Amendments Get Mixed Review
BLM preferred alternative is Strong on Grazing, Weak on Fossil Fuels and Mining
Laramie, Wyo. - WildEarth Guardians provided an analysis of the federal government’s newly proposed California-Nevada sage grouse plan amendments, giving it relatively strong marks on addressing livestock grazing but pointing out key deficiencies in protections from mining, geothermal, and oil and gas development.
“The federal government’s preferred plan has some strong sage grouse protections where the State of Nevada plan has crippling weaknesses,” said Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “If the draft federal plan is adopted, ranchers will have to do their part to improve conditions for sage grouse, while the energy and mining industry could take advantage of loopholes that allow major destruction of important sage grouse habitats.”
“The overall approach to livestock grazing is among the strongest we’ve seen of the West-wide sage grouse plan amendments, and it addresses one of the most serious problems,” added Molvar. “Livestock overgrazing has caused huge problems across the Great Basin states leading to widespread conversion of healthy sage grouse habitats to vast oceans of cheatgrass, destroying the value of wildlife habitat. The solution is to limit livestock grazing to protect the healthy sagebrush basins that are left, and to rehabilitate areas that are currently being damaged by too many livestock grazing the land for too long..”
The “No Surface Occupancy” measures that will apply to future oil and gas and geothermal leases will largely prevent the siting of harmful energy facilities in key sage grouse habitats, but the plan fails to implement controls on extensive leases already held by the energy industry. If the energy industry develops these leases according to standard operating procedures, major population declines of sage grouse will likely result.
“Large expanses of key sage grouse habitat near Elko and Ely have already been leased for oil and gas development. The Bureau of Land Management needs to apply strong protections for sage grouse including requiring drilling sites to be located far from sage grouse breeding and nesting habitats, restricting wellsites to one per square mile and implementing overall disturbance caps,” said Molvar. “We’ve learned hard lessons in Wyoming that when the oil industry is allowed to drill a wellfield the cheapest and easiest way, the result is the industrialization of public lands and the complete loss of sage grouse populations. That’s a big reason why we’re on the cusp of an Endangered Species Act listing today.”
The BLM’s plan also allows the hard-rock mining industry to take advantage of loopholes that allow new mines to be sited in the most sensitive sage grouse habitats. “Strip mines and underground mines alike can have massive impacts on sage grouse populations when they’re sited in key breeding and nesting habitats,” noted Molvar. “To prevent declines associated with mining, the federal government needs to withdraw the Priority Habitats so future mining claims can’t be filed there.”
The plans’ emphasis on biofuels plants to deal with juniper and conifer removal is also problematic. “Creating an entire biofuels industry around short-term removal of juniper and pinon pines for sage grouse habitat improvement is unwise because after a few years, efforts to address juniper encroachment will be completed, but biofuels plants would demand more wood.” said Molvar. Developing such an industry would create a strong incentive for the new biofuels industry to turn to clearcutting piñon-juniper woodlands in the mountains of Nevada and California, creating widespread environmental impacts that mirror those in heavily-logged parts of the Rocky Mountains and High Sierras. “The federal government should avoid creating a demand for a fuel source that could turn into a major environmental problem down the road.”
The new federal plan would apply to all sage grouse populations in Nevada and California except the Mono Basin or “Bi-State” population, which the Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed for “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act.
“The crash of sage grouse populations in the Mono Basin, and the proposal to protect them under the Endangered Species Act is a warning sign that federal officials in other parts of the region must heed,” Molvar warned. “Recovering sage grouse populations in other parts of California and Nevada should be easier than for the imperiled Mono Basin population, but everybody who does business in sagebrush habitats, from ranchers to mining corporations to the oil and gas industry, has to roll up their sleeves and commit to adjustments that make their operations compatible with improving conditions for sage grouse.”