Mining deemed threat to Sage-Grouse; millions of acres withdrawn

By Dani Dagan

©Francesco Veronesi

In September 2015 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to refrain from listing the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) under the Endangered Species Act. The decision was based in part on the finalization of federal plans which aim to protect about 50 million acres of sage-grouse habitat across 10 states. This effort to conserve the species without listing it was hailed as a conservation success by some, and roused suspicion in others.

The Bureau of Land Management is in the process of finalizing land management plans to help conserve the sage-grouse. Over 5,000 comments were received regarding a 10-million-acre withdrawal from mining claims on BLM and Forest Service lands, which are deemed important primary habitat for greater sage-grouse under the federal plans.

Responses to the proposed withdrawal have greatly varied. Some groups believe this 10-million-acre withdrawal is not enough to adequately protect sage-grouse habitat. A coalition of 80 organizations sent a letter asking that the withdrawal be extended to include roughly 35 million acres. On the other hand, the National Mining Association sent its own 102-page letter which underscores the lands’ mineral richness and states BLM has not demonstrated that protecting these lands is necessary for accomplishing sage-grouse conservation.

In Nevada, Governor Brian Sandoval hopes to proceed with mining on some of these lands by swapping one-fifth of them– about 555,000 acres – for 394,000 different acres which he claims to be higher-quality habitats for sage-grouse. He sent a letter to BLM arguing that restoring burned rangeland and reining in wild horse herds are more effective ways to protect sage-grouse populations.

For now, the 10 million acres have been set aside pending an environmental impact statement, which should take about two years to complete and will incorporate public comments, including the letters cited above. The EIS will determine how much land, if any, should be withdrawn from mining claims.

Dani Dagan is a policy intern at The Wildlife Society as part of the Government Affairs & Partnership program.

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