Apr 212015

The Associated Press is reporting that the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided not to list the California-Nevada population of greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will formally announce the decision today. (Press release below)

Reported the AP's Scott Sonner:

Jewell said in remarks prepared for a 1 p.m. [Tuesday] announcement with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval in Reno that she intends to withdraw the earlier proposal to declare the bistate population threatened. "The collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and California are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development," she said.

Regulatory docket

All sage-grouse documents published in Federal Register over the years

PRESS RELEASE, April 21, 2015

Successful Conservation Partnership Keeps Bi-State Sage-Grouse Off Endangered Species List

Partnership among California, Nevada, Federal Agencies, & Landowners Helped Conserve Key Habitat, Reduce Threats to Bird

RENO, NV – U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the Bi-State population of greater sage-grouse does not require the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Secretary Jewell joined with USDA Under Secretary Robert Bonnie, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird and other state and local partners to celebrate an extensive and long-term conservation partnership on behalf of the bi-state greater sage-grouse population. Federal, state and private partners have come together to proactively conserve key habitat and significantly reduce long-term threats to this distinct population segment of greater sage-grouse.

A key factor in the decision not to list the bird was the development of the Bi-State Action Plan, a conservation plan developed by partners in the Bi-State Local Area Working Group over the past 15 years and secured with $45 million in funding. This adds to nearly $30 million worth of conservation work USDA and other partners have already completed to implement this plan.

“Thanks in large part to the extraordinary efforts of all the partners in the working group to address threats to greater sage-grouse and its habitat in the Bi-State area, our biologists have determined that this population no longer needs ESA protection,” said Jewell. “What’s more, the collaborative, science-based efforts in Nevada and California are proof that we can conserve sagebrush habitat across the West while we encourage sustainable economic development.”

“This is welcome news for all Nevadans. I applaud the local area working group, private citizens, Tribes, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and our federal partners for their tremendous efforts to develop conservation actions that preclude the need to list the species while still allowing for sustainable economic development,” said Sandoval. “Today’s announcement highlights the critical partnerships that must exist for our conservation strategies to be effective and demonstrate that sage grouse and economic development can coexist in both the bi-state area and across the range of the greater sage-grouse.”

“Together, we’ve worked with ranchers, conservation groups, and local governments in Nevada and California to take proactive steps to restore and enhance sage-grouse habitat while also helping them improve their ranching operations,” Bonnie said. “The decision to not list the bi-state sage-grouse proves this work has paid off.”

“The efforts of the local working group and the partnerships they’ve built over the past decade are truly unprecedented,” said Dan Ashe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director. “They have set the stage for the next generation of conservation and convinced us that the sage-grouse population has a bright future in the Bi-State region.”

“California is committed to continue working with our public and private partners in implementing this strong, science-based conservation plan into the future,” said Laird. “This partnership between California and Nevada serves as a model for effective conservation of the Greater sage-grouse in other Western states.”

As its name suggests, the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment straddles the California-Nevada border, where biologists estimate that between 2,500 and 9,000 of these ground-dwelling birds inhabit about 4.5 million acres of high-desert sagebrush. Greater sage-grouse are known for the males’ flamboyant springtime mating displays on traditional dancing grounds, also called leks. The birds use a variety of sagebrush habitats throughout the year on private, state and federal lands.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Bi-State population of greater sage-grouse a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) under the ESA in 2010 because genetic analysis shows it has been separated from other greater sage-grouse for thousands of years and the genetic differences are significant.

In October 2013, the Service proposed listing the Bi-State DPS as threatened under the ESA based on significant population declines due to the loss and fragmentation of its sagebrush habitat from urbanization and associated infrastructure development, encroachment of sagebrush by conifers, and a vicious cycle of wildfire and fire-adapted invasive grasses. These threats, combined with the relatively limited number of birds, the small population size and their isolation, were determined to pose a significant threat to the species.

The Service is withdrawing this proposal in large part because of the success of the Bi-State Action Plan. The plan is the product of the Bi-State Area Local Working Group, comprising federal, state and local agencies and landowners from Nevada and California, which has been pursuing sage-grouse conservation since the early 2000s. Since then, the working group’s technical advisory committee has finalized plans on nearly 80 science-driven conservation projects specifically designed to reduce identified threats and protect the sagebrush-steppe habitat.

The working group’s executive oversight committee has raised more than $45 million in federal and state funding to ensure the projects are implemented and completed over the next 10 years. Long-term projects implemented under the Bi-State Action Plan include population monitoring, urbanization abatement measures, livestock management, wild horse management, pinyon and juniper removal, disease and predation studies and other habitat improvement and restoration projects.

Each of the projects is tied to a specific population management unit within the region, led and funded by a specific agency or partnership, and ranked by the immediacy of the threat to the species.

The comprehensive plan and funding commitments give the Service confidence that effective conservation measures needed to address threats to the species are highly likely to be implemented.

The working group members include private landowners in California and Nevada, Nevada Department of Wildlife, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Nevada Division of Forestry, California State Parks, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, nongovernmental organizations such as Nevada Wildlife Federation, Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Department of Defense and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Conservation work on private lands – through easements and habitat restoration – has played an important role in connecting national forests and other public lands, working to keep habitat intact. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has already invested nearly $20 million in conservation assistance to ranchers through this effort. This has helped ranchers protect 7,300 acres of key summer habitat through easements, with an additional 4,500 acres in process. This investment has also helped them remove invading juniper and pinyon trees, enhancing nearly 4,000 acres of important sagebrush-steppe habitat.

This summer, the Forest Service will begin treatments to improve sagebrush ecosystem health on 29,000 acres of key habitat for the sage grouse.

The USGS has been a key partner in monitoring the Bi-State population and interpreting data collected to assure the Bi-State partners are using the best science in their conservation efforts.

Along with withdrawing the listing proposal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also withdrawing proposed rules under section 4(d) of the ESA and the proposed designation of critical habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concurrently conducting a separate status review for the greater sage-grouse across its 11-state range. In 2010, it determined the greater sage-grouse was warranted for protection but that action was precluded by higher priorities. A determination on whether the species still requires protection is due Sept. 30, 2015.

The deteriorating health of the greater sage-grouse and western sagebrush landscapes has sparked an unprecedented and proactive partnership across eleven states to conserve the uniquely American habitat that supports diverse wildlife, outdoor recreation, and ranching and other traditional land uses that form the cornerstone of the Western way of life.

For more detailed information on the Bi-State DPS of the greater sage-grouse and its habitat, along with more information about conservation projects that are being done to help protect this unique species, visit www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse.

Mar 272015

The greater sage-grouse cannot stay out of the news long. On Thursday, the Interior Department announced an agreement with Barrick Gold of North America and The Nature Conservancy allowing Barrick "to accumulate credits for successful mitigation projects that protect and enhance greater sage-grouse habitat on the company’s private Nevada ranch lands."

The company owns a lot of ranch lands in Nevada. Interior said a Nature Conservancy forecasting tool "will be applied to 582,000 acres of ranch lands under Barrick management in Nevada."

Because I am a lazy reporter and it is rather late at night, I'll simply paste the rest of the department's news release below, indented to make it clear this is DOI's writing, not mine, which would no doubt be riddled with typos.

But because the greater sage-grouse is a bird that seeks the limelight, there's more: Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will be announcing another sage-grouse agreement Friday in Bend, Ore., with a cast of luminaries including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Ann Mills, FWS Regional Director Robyn Thorson, and BLM Deputy Director Steven Ellis. John O'Keefe, President-Elect, Oregon Cattlemen's Association, rounds out the crew. So, if you're at the Deschutes National Forest Office at            63095 Deschutes Market Rd in Bend ab0ut 1:45 p.m. (that's PT, of course), give me a call so I can listen in, or take a few photos (excuse me, digital images). I promise I'll post them here.

And, let's not forget the announcement last week in Wyoming of "the nation’s first conservation bank for greater sage-grouse."

On Tuesday, March 18, "at a ceremony in [Cheyenne] hosted by Governor Matt Mead, Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Lyons, Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Jim Kurth and Jeff Meyer, Managing Partner of the Sweetwater River Conservancy, formalized the agreement creating the project, which ranks as the largest conservation bank in the country," FWS said.

Don't know how I missed that one. Blink and you'll miss the latest announcement about land being managed/conserved/spruced up for the sage-grouse, all of which leads one to believe that an announcement in September that the bird has managed to avoid ESA listing is, how shall we say, in the bag?

Anyway, if you haven't already left this page long ago, here's that Barrick release:

The agreement among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Barrick establishes a conservation bank that allows the mining company to accumulate credits for successful mitigation projects that protect and enhance greater sage-grouse habitat on the company’s private Nevada ranch lands. As a result, Barrick gains certainty that the credits can be used to offset impacts to habitat from the company’s planned future mine expansion on public lands.

BLM, FWS and Barrick have all agreed to use The Nature Conservancy’s science-based Sage-grouse Conservation Forecasting Tool to quantify the benefits of habitat conservation projects on the company’s ranch lands and adjacent public lands as well as the impacts of Barrick’s future proposals for mining activities in the area. This unprecedented use of a conservation bank agreement adds to a suite of tools that can provide greater certainty to public land users by compensating for any adverse impacts their actions may have on public resources while permitting important economic activities. On a broader scale, the State of Nevada’s conservation credit exchange system, developed in concert with Environmental Incentives LLC, could facilitate other similar agreements to improve habitat and provide certainty to industry.

“This is the kind of creative, voluntary partnership that we need to help conserve the greater sage-grouse while sustaining important economic activities on western rangelands,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “This conservation banking agreement and Barrick’s partnership with The Nature Conservancy illustrates the kind of public-private collaboration that is essential to a successful effort to conserve rangeland habitat for people and over 350 species of wildlife.”

“When we first approached the Interior Department with this idea, we wanted to demonstrate that industry, regulators and conservation experts can work together to solve complex problems,” said Michael Brown, Executive Director of Barrick North America. “After many years of working with The Nature Conservancy, we are excited to see what they can do to help us improve habitat on our ranch lands and, hopefully, to provide a model for others interested in making similar improvements. We’re pulling many years of experience and cutting-edge conservation science together to protect the sage grouse, which, in turn, supports the broader ecosystem.”

The conservation bank concept commits Barrick and other land users to achieve ‘net conservation benefits’ for the greater sage-grouse by encouraging greater gains in functional sage grouse habitat through preservation and restoration than what is lost through development activities. Over time, the application of this concept should result in significant, landscape-scale improvements to habitat conditions throughout the region. Through implementation of this conservation bank, Barrick will obtain assurance that the voluntary compensatory mitigation measures taken by the company, when sufficient to provide a net conservation gain to the species, will be accounted for by BLM and the FWS as the agencies review the company’s future proposed mining operations.

The Nature Conservancy’s Sagebrush Conservation Forecasting Tool uses satellite imagery to create maps of current habitat conditions. Scientists then employ predictive computer models that simulate the natural patterns of vegetation change over time (e.g., young to mature plants), to identify which restoration actions will be most helpful to sage-grouse.

“By engaging with Barrick and the Department of the Interior, we can use our scientific and conservation planning expertise to help inform decisions that protect, manage and restore vital wildlife habitat on potentially hundreds of thousands of acres of land,” says Michael Cameron, Associate Director of the Nevada Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “Working together we can have a meaningful impact that supports both conservation and the economy of Nevada.”

In addition to its gold mining operations, Barrick owns several Nevada ranches. The company has completed a variety of habitat improvement projects on these ranches over the past 25 years, supporting mule deer, native fish and other species. The Nature Conservancy’s forecasting tool will be applied to 582,000 acres of ranch lands under Barrick management in Nevada. The agreement sets the stage for more investment in conservation of greater sage-grouse habitat, but it does not change or exempt Barrick from any existing laws and regulations governing its mining activities and its responsibility for environmental protection.

Other public land users are also stepping up to improve conservation practices. Ranchers in Oregon and Wyoming, for example, have committed to implement measures that will protect greater sage-grouse habitat across millions of acres of rangelands in return for assurances that, should the bird be listed as endangered or threatened, their operations will not be affected.

Secretary Jewell added, “Through landscape level mitigation efforts, conservation banks, credit exchanges, conservation easements, and conservation assistance programs, we are advancing partnership efforts that are redefining how we achieve our conservation goals across the American West.”

Through this sage-grouse effort and others, the Department is implementing the Secretary’s vision for more meaningful, landscape-level investments to compensate for development impacts.

Greater sage-grouse once occupied more than 290 million acres of sagebrush in the West, but the bird, known for its flamboyant mating ritual at sites called leks, has lost more than half of its habitat due to growing threats from conversion to agriculture, rangeland fire, invasive species and development.

The deteriorating health of western sagebrush landscapes has sparked unprecedented and proactive collaboration across 11 states. These collaborations are conserving uniquely American habitat that supports wildlife, outdoor recreation, ranching and other traditional land uses.

More information on the greater sage-grouse and the ongoing, collaborative work to conserve the sagebrush landscape is available at: http://www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse/

Mar 042013

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has shut the door on an 18-year dispute over a Nevada forest road (Great Old Broads for Wilderness v. Kimbell, 11-16183).

Today, the court turned down an appeal from the Great Old Broads, who were joined by The Wilderness Society in their legal challenge to the Forest Service's Record of Decision.

The South Canyon Road in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest has been the subject of angry protests and lawsuits since it was damaged by flooding in 1995. Elko County tried to rebuild it, but those efforts resulted in severe sedimentation in the Jarbidge River, leading to an emergency listing of the river's population of bull trout by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Then, a "shovel brigade" moved in, leading to more legal wrangling and cross-claims. Finally, an agreement was reached between the federal government and local authorities, but environmentalists were not satisfied that the river would be protected.

"Shovel brigade" works on July 4, 2000, to remove Liberty Rock. Photo by Ross Andreson/Elko Daily Free Press

"The Jarbidge River is home to the only population of bull trout known to exist south of the Snake River. This population has been isolated from other bull trout for more than 100 years by a combination of human and natural barriers," the court said.

In its decision, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's finding that the Great Old Broads had exhausted their administrative remedies, but affirmed the court's alternate finding on the merits.

Discussing the appellants' claim that the Forest Service's Record of Decision violated Fisheries and Wildlife Restoration standard FW-2, and therefore the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest Plan and the National Forest Management Act, the court said:

"The final EIS does indicate that FW-2 applies in the Project. But even if FW-2 does apply to 'fish and wildlife in the Jarbidge Canyon EIS,' it requires action only for 'fish and wildlife interpretive and other user-enhancement facilities.' The term 'user enhancement facilities' does not appear to apply to roads but instead, as the Forest Service suggests, to trailhead facilities such as parking areas and toilets."