A rare Dixie Valley toad sits in grass in June 2017 in the Dixie Meadows in Churchill County. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP)
RENO — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed as part of a settlement with environmentalists to decide by April 4 whether a rare toad warrants endangered species protection in wetlands next to a geothermal plant being built in Churchill County.
The agency's lawyers signed the agreement this week with a conservation group that has filed a related lawsuit to block construction of Ormat Technologies Inc.'s geothermal power plant near Fallon.
The dispute is among a growing number of conflicts over wildlife protection and/or tribal rights on federal lands that the Biden administration faces as it pursues its agenda to combat climate change by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.
The Center for Biological Diversity and a Nevada tribe won a federal court order in Reno last month temporarily blocking construction of Ormat's project east of Fallon.
But the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals stayed that order Feb. 4 pending full consideration of Ormat's appeal. The Reno-based company broke ground last week. The San Francisco-based appellate court is considering hearing oral arguments on the appeal in June.
Ormat had said it might be forced to abandon the project if it couldn't begin work there by Feb. 28. Vice President Paul Thomsen said this week the new listing agreement won't affect its plans.
The Center for Biological Diversity's new settlement with the Fish and Wildlife Service is similar to one it secured last year regarding listing deadlines for a desert wildflower the agency has since proposed for endangered status at a lithium mine planned midway between Reno and Las Vegas.
Neither Tiehm's buckwheat nor the Dixie Valley toad is known to exist anywhere else in the world.
"We're thrilled that the Dixie Valley toad is being put on the fast-track for protection," said Patrick Donnelly, the center's Great Basin director.
It first petitioned for the toad's listing in 2017. Donnelly said it's the toad's "last, best chance to avoid extinction."
"Bulldozers are already destroying the toad's habitat and preparing for a massive groundwater pumping operation that could dry up the only wetland where it lives," Donnelly said.
Geothermal power is generated from hot water deep beneath the earth.
The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit that claims the power plant will "turn a unique, remote desert oasis into an industrial site," says the site is sacred to their people who have lived there thousands of years.
Thomsen said in an email to The Associated Press the mitigation plan the company spent six years developing to offset any potential environmental impacts "is not dependent on whether the toad is listed under the Endangered Species Act."
"Ormat has long recognized the importance of conserving the Dixie Valley toad, regardless of its legal status," he said, adding that "we remain fully committed to the sustainable development of renewable energy projects in the state of Nevada and around the world."
Part of the foundation of future efforts to produce more "green" energy in the U.S., conservationists generally back such efforts but argue projects like the geothermal plant and a pair of lithium mines planned in Nevada shouldn't be built if they can't comply with federal environmental laws.
Lithium is an especially important mineral on the Biden administration's energy agenda because it's needed to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden highlighted his efforts to counter China's dominance in the electric battery market and bolster domestic production of lithium when he announced a $35 million in assistance to MP Materials to extract lithium from geothermal brine in Southern California near the Nevada line.
Meanwhile, his administration also announced it was delaying decisions on new oil and gas drilling on federal land after a U.S. judge in Louisiana blocked the way officials were calculating the real-world costs of climate change.
In the West, the drilling is often challenged by conservationists who say it will harm a variety of fish and wildlife, including the imperiled greater sage grouse.
Protection of grouse habitat also is part of a legal battle at another lithium mine planned in Nevada near the Oregon line.
Several tribes who have joined that suit also say Lithium Nevada's Thacker Pass project is on land where dozens of their ancestors were massacred by the U.S. cavalry in 1865. That case also is now before the 9th Circuit.