Flanked by governors of western states, including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said a massive five-year effort to keep the Greater Sage Grouse off the endangered and threatened species list had paid off.
That includes commitments of more than $750 million from government and outside interest groups to buy up conservation easements and restore the bird’s range.
Jewell called it “the largest, most complex land conservation effort” in U.S. history.
Reaction was mixed to Tuesday’s announcement the Greater Sage Grouse was not going to being listed as a threatened or endangered species.
The decision was applauded by the Nevada Conservation League and National Audubon Society as an historic cooperation among stakeholders.
But both Sen. Dean Heller and Sandoval cautioned the battle over federal plans to impose land use regulations on 60 million acres of federal land isn’t over.
“This is not a win for Nevada,” said Heller. “At the end of the day, big government continues to tighten its grip at the expense of rural America’s future, especially in Nevada.”
Sandoval took a more positive tone saying he’s “cautiously optimistic that this is good news for Nevada.”
He said there’s more work to be done to resolve key issues and urged the stakeholders to “stay at the table.”
“I appreciate Secretary Jewell’s commitment to continue working with us and I take her at her word that we will collaborate in good faith during the next two years so that we have the opportunity to demonstrate that the Nevada plan provides the best conservation for sage grouse in Nevada,” he said.
Sen. Harry Reid commended the Interior Department for its decision as well as Sandoval for “the phenomenal work done in partnership with (Jewell).” He too said he looks forward to continued cooperation between federal, state and local governments.
Robert Buntjer, chairman for the Nevada Conservation League, said he was pleased the “historic conservation efforts that have been undertaken by local stakeholders have eliminated the need for an Endangered Species Act listing.”
Rose Strickland of the Sierra Club also praised the efforts of all participants in the development of the plan to retain management of the grouse and its habitat at the state level.
Audubon Society officials said the decision “proves the power in partnerships” to implement conservation strategies, improve the ecosystem and reduce risks to the grouse.
State officials have long expressed deep concern over the damage restrictions brought by listing the bird would cause to ranching, mining, hunting and recreation across the entire state of Nevada. They said it would bring severe economic damage to the state.
The Obama administration said the greater sage grouse doesn’t require Endangered Species Act protections, walking a fine line with its assertion economic development and preservation can coexist across the bird’s 11-state range.
Tuesday’s announcement reversed a 2010 finding the bird was headed toward possible extinction as development cut into its vast but shrinking sagebrush habitat ranging from California to the Dakotas.
Sandoval and Jewell were joined by the governors from Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.
“It does mean a brighter future for one amazing, scrappy bird,” Jewell said at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.
The government will provide some level of habitat protections on most federal lands in the grouse’s range, including 12 million acres where strict limits on oil and gas limits will be enforced, Jewell said. The federal holdings make up more than a third of the animal’s total range and don’t include millions of acres of private land that are going to be restored or protected, agency officials said.
The species once numbered an estimated 16 million birds. Over the last century, they lost roughly half their habitat to development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that’s encouraging wildfires in the Great Basin of Nevada and adjoining states. An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 birds now occupy sagebrush habitat spanning 11 states.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 declared the species to be in precipitous decline. Under a court settlement with the group WildEarth Guardians, Fish and Wildlife faced a Sept. 30 deadline to decide the bird’s status.
Efforts to avoid protections there have resulted in a significant impact: No drilling may take place near vital sage grouse breeding grounds during nesting season and oil and gas wells in core habitat must be clustered together. Other states have adopted similar plans.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has worked with ranchers to improve habitat by removing fences, uprooting invasive trees and buying conservation easements to keep the land from being altered.
Nevada rancher Duane Coombs said a more trustful relationship between residents of Western states and Washington helped make those measures possible.
He said during Tuesday’s event although he inherited his father’s distrust of the federal government, he raised his daughter to help him tie markers on ranch fences to keep sage grouse from flying into them and getting killed.
“The sage grouse was going to be the spotted owl for the livestock grazing industry,” he said, referring to federal wildlife protections approved 25 years ago that greatly impeded the logging industry. “You know, we saw the way of the spotted owl, the impact that that had on the timber industry in the 80s. And that was the fear.”
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