Nevada’s U.S. senators are orchestrating a bipartisan discussion on how best to protect sage grouse in the Silver State with the goal of staving off the bird’s listing under the Endangered Species Act.
A “discussion draft” of a bill released Friday sets up a framework for legislation that among other things would provide millions of dollars for sage grouse habitat protection in Nevada while still allowing development on vast areas of public lands and designating other areas as protected wilderness.
It’s a delicate dance, trying to balance the fate of the chicken-size game bird and the state’s fragile economy.
“Only through cooperation with the Nevada delegation, the state of Nevada and our federal agencies can we protect this species and our way of life,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement Friday.
Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada agreed.
“A result of much collaboration, this framework provides a path forward to protect our economy, but we still have a lot of work to do to ensure Nevadans’ needs are fully met,” he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under court mandate to decide by September 2015 whether the bird found in 11 Western states should be listed as threatened or endangered. Experts think as many as 2 million sage grouse inhabited the West when Lewis and Clark first noted the birds in 1805. Today, their numbers are estimated at 140,000 to 200,000.
Their decline is blamed on loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitat brought on by human intrusion and natural causes such as fire.
The federal government manages 85 percent of the land in Nevada, and a listing could have onerous economic consequences for renewable energy, ranching, mining and oil and gas development.
States have been trying to create plans to protect the bird and avoid a possible listing.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval set up a Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to develop a plan on how to protect the bird in Nevada. One aspect of that plan focuses on a mitigation system, whereby disturbance of sage grouse habitat would be allowed by offering protections elsewhere in the state.
“This legislation is intended to complement the work done by the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council,” Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said.
Sandoval spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said the governor’s office is pleased some of the state’s initiatives are recognized in the draft.
“We look forward to reviewing it more carefully and continuing to work with Sens. Reid and Heller to craft a robust strategy that will ultimately protect Nevada’s ecosystems, economies and way of life,” she said in an email.
The Nevada Sagebrush Landscape Conservation and Economic Development Act proposes a number of initiatives.
A big component of the measure is conservation fees levied against developers. The draft proposes a levy of $750 per acre to disturb land in “priority” sage grouse habitat and $500 per acre in general grouse habitat.
As proposed, 15 percent of funds collected would go to the state for its sagebrush ecosystem mitigation plan.
The rest would go into a special account administered by the Interior Department for efforts to benefit sage grouse in Nevada, including habitat restoration, reducing the risk of wildfires and predator control. The measure authorizes spending of up to $25 million a year.
The draft also would designate unresolved wilderness study areas and inventoried roadless areas as wilderness “to perpetually preserve” a portion of sagebrush landscape and aid the bird’s recovery.
Grazing initiated in those areas before the bill’s passage would be allowed to continue, subject to regulations imposed by the secretary of the Interior.
The measure also directs selection of one site each in Churchill, Elko and Pershing counties for geothermal energy development. The selected sites would be assured more rapid permitting for quicker development of geothermal energy.
Reid and Heller stressed that the draft is a starting point and many details remain to be worked out.