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Feds release options for sage grouse protection

The federal government on Friday released a range of proposals designed to protect the greater sage grouse across Nevada and a portion of northeastern California, though some conservationists are already lashing out at proposed steps they say don’t go far enough in safeguarding the bird and the sagebrush landscape it depends on.

Six options are considered in a draft document prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service. They propose different measures to protect the greater sage grouse, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled under court order to consider listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2015.

Friday’s release came a week to the day after the service determined that a distinct subspecies of sage grouse that lives only along the Nevada-California border, the bi-state sage grouse, should be listed as a threatened species.

The greater sage grouse lives across a much broader area, including the bulk of Northern Nevada and across 10 other western states. Many are concerned its listing could come with crippling economic impacts, affecting agriculture, mining, renewable energy production and outdoor recreation.

The six options – including one prepared by the state of Nevada and two by conservation groups – range from doing nothing to imposing significant restrictions on federal land with prime sage grouse habitat. Grazing, mining, energy development and vehicle travel could all be affected and aspects of the different alternatives could be combined when a final recommendation is made later this year, officials said.

“It covers a wide range of measures and activities,” BLM spokesman Chris Rose said of plans targeting 17 million acres of grouse habitat in Nevada and northeast California.

The option preferred by the BLM and Forest Service would allow grazing and most oil, gas and geothermal operations. It would close motorized vehicle use in the most sensitive habitat. Mining, solar and wind energy development would be blocked in some areas.

Public comments are being accepted until Jan. 29. The draft environmental impact statement was one of three for sage grouse released Friday, with some 31 million acres across parts of five states affected. In all, 15 similar draft plans and environmental impact statements are set to be released.

Some conservationists expressed dissatisfaction with the option preferred by the government.

“If done right, the national planning strategy could be a huge success and have positive implications not only for sage grouse but also hundreds of other wildlife species that live on federal public lands,” said Mark Salvo of Defenders of Wildlife.

“Unfortunately, the latest plans appear to prescribe more of the same inadequate conservation measures that we have seen in most of the other plans released to date,” Salvo said. “It’s ‘Conservation 101’ – protecting species requires a comprehensive planning approach that secures habitat and effectively manages harmful land uses. Simply tweaking existing land-use management in minor ways will not save the sage grouse.”

Kyle Davis of the Nevada Conservation League said there’s no guarantee the federal plans will stave off listing of the greater sage grouse, which he said would have widespread impacts to both federal and private land providing bird habitat.

“What we really need is a comprehensive and pragmatic approach to conserving sage grouse habitat to protect the greater sage grouse while also addressing Nevada’s economic interests,” Davis said. “Nevada needs a commitment from our federal and state leaders to develop a made-in-Nevada solution that will provide Nevadans the assurances we need to preserve sage grouse and ensure that the state economy continues to prosper.”