The U.S .Bureau of Land Management released draft management proposals Friday for protecting sage grouse in Nevada and a sliver of northeast California, with options ranging from doing nothing to imposing tough restrictions on public land use across 17 million acres.
Six alternatives are explored in roughly 1,000 pages announced in the Federal Register. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service identified one proposal as preferred for protecting the chicken-size bird by restricting use on those public lands.
Public comments are being accepted through Jan. 29. Federal officials stressed that various aspects of the different alternatives could be melded into a final recommendation expected next year. That final proposal will then be forwarded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will consider whether the measures are sufficient to avoid federal protection for the bird.
Environmentalist groups, which have proposed two alternatives of their own, said the BLM’s preferred plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the bird found in 11 states across the West. In Nevada, the birds are found in every county except Clark.
“If done right, the national planning strategy could be a huge success and have positive implications not only for sage grouse but also hundreds of other wildlife species that live on federal public lands,” said Mark Salvo with Defenders of Wildlife.
“Simply tweaking existing land-use management in minor ways will not save the sage grouse,” he said.
The more stringent proposals would close off sage grouse habitat in the region to cattle grazing; right of ways for things like transmission lines, pipelines and solar energy; oil, gas and geothermal operations; and mining.
The preferred option as identified by the BLM and Forest Service would allow grazing and most oil, gas and geothermal operations. It would close motorized vehicle use in the most sensitive sage grouse areas and limit it to existing routes in others. It would also close much of the affected area to mining, solar and wind energy development.
In contrast, the state plan seeks to keep much of those areas open “for consideration” of those activities.
Nevada and other states have been working to develop conservation plans following a federal judge’s ruling that mandated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decide by 2015 if the bird needs protection under the Endangered Species Act.
In 2010, the service determined that listing greater sage grouse was “warranted but precluded” because of higher-priority listing proposals. Environmental groups sued, resulting in the federal court mandate.
States fear a listing could bring mining, ranching, oil and gas development and renewable energy projects to a screeching halt and cripple rural Western economies.
Leo Drozdoff, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Friday that the preferred plan identified by BLM includes three elements also found in the state plan. One involves a crediting system, where disturbance of sage grouse habitat would be allowed in exchange for better protections in other sage grouse areas.
“What our job is now is to take a look at the other aspects of the state plan that are not yet part of the preferred alternative,” Drozdoff said, adding he believes other aspects of Nevada’s plan could become part of the overall strategy eventually adopted by the federal government.
Experts think as many as 2 million sage grouse inhabited a broad area of the western United States and Canada when Lewis and Clark first noted the birds, in 1805. Today their numbers are estimated at 140,000 to 250,000.
Their decline is blamed on loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitat brought on by both natural causes such as fire and human intrusion.
The draft environmental impact statement was one of three published in the Federal Register. The plans cover three full Western States — Nevada, Utah and Idaho — and small portions of three others: California, Wyoming and Montana.