At its inaugural meeting Tuesday, the 10-member Greater Sage Grouse Advisory Committee was told the governor’s goal is to have a plan to protect the bird while balancing the various interests of agriculture, energy, mining, conservationists and local governments, who fear development and rural livelihoods could be jeopardized if the bird is given federal protection.
“It’s the intent of this administration to prevent the listing of greater sage grouse as an endangered species,” Dale Erquiaga, senior adviser to the governor, told the panel.
But the plan also “has to pass federal muster,” he said.
The issue of sage grouse — and consequences if the bird is given federal protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act — has been looming over the West for years.
Sage grouse are ground-dwelling birds up to 30 inches long and 2 feet tall. During spring mating season, they congregate at leks — historical breeding areas — where males compete for females by performing an elaborate dance, fanning their tails and puffing up their yellow chests. They are found in 11 states — from Washington to South Dakota, and two Canadian provinces. But scientists say they occupy only 56 percent of their historical range.
Nevada’s late former Gov. Kenny Guinn formed Nevada’s first sage grouse committee in 2000. Sandoval’s new advisory panel will expand on those efforts and is tasked with making recommendations by the end of July.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined sage grouse deserved federal protection, but other species were higher priorities. A recent legal settlement now gives the agency until 2015 to decide the bird’s status — threatened or endangered or not in need of federal protection.
But Quinton Barr, a consultant with Western Range Service, presented a paper his firm prepared on behalf of Elko County that said the federal agency’s conclusions were not supported by scientific data.
“If the greater sage grouse were really rare enough to warrant listing ... it is unconceivable that its population could be so numerous and widespread that the listing would require protection of more than 400,000 individual birds across a swath of land covering over 50 million acres,” the report said, adding that given the distribution of the bird, “it is nonsensical to classify the species as endangered or threatened.”
The Nevada advisory committee is working with Bob Budd, a land resource expert and conservationist who helped draft Wyoming’s sage grouse plan and is also working with Utah on a similar effort. The Wyoming plan is considered a model for other western states, though officials caution that plans need to be tailored to a state’s unique circumstances.
Budd is executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, a program established to enhance wildlife habitats and the natural resource heritage of Wyoming.
He said protecting the bird doesn’t have to mean halting growth and development.
In Wyoming, he said, “We do allow development, but it’s at a level that doesn’t cause a decline in sage grouse.”
Concern about sage grouse has already stalled some energy projects in Nevada. Earlier this year the U.S. Bureau of Land Management pulled 33 parcels covering 61,000 acres of public lands from an oil and gas lease sale because they are in sage grouse habitat.
The agency also postponed a decision on a large wind energy project along the Nevada-Idaho line until an environmental impact statement on sage grouse is completed — a delay that brought an angry response from one commissioner in Elko County, who said jobs were being killed by a “stupid bird.”