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Nevada Counties, Mining Firms Challenge Sage Grouse Rules in Court

Counties and mining interests in Nevada have filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Reno, NV, seeking to block the historic state-federal agreement protecting the greater sage grouse by restricting development in designated habitat areas in a state-administered program (see Daily GPI, Sept. 22).

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada set a supplemental briefing schedule running through most of this year, so a ruling may not come until early next year, a court administrator for the judge told NGI.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval was one of four western governors who joined Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in September in announcing the decision to protect the greater sage grouse with public-private conservation programs at the state level and not through under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Nevertheless, eight Nevada counties and two mining companies are balking at the agreement, which amounts to the largest land conservation effort ever undertaken.

During a hearing last Tuesday, Du questioned whether the counties and companies have demonstrated that "irreparable harm" economically was likely from the sage grouse restrictions. The Assistant U.S. Attorney on the case, Holly Vance, contended in a brief that the plaintiffs were misrepresenting and exaggerating the potential ill effects of the sage grouse ruling.

The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Laura Granier, told local news media that there are already negative impacts on prospective investment in mining operations in Nevada’s Elko and Humboldt counties, which include some of the world's major gold deposits.

The counties and mining companies are seeking a temporary injunction to block the sage grouse protections prior to a trial that would not start before next year. At last week's hearing, Du called that a "drastic remedy," according to an Associated Press report on the eight hours of testimony.

The counties allege that the sage grouse rules are stifling future development, and mining company interests contend that proposed habitat boundaries are being applied incorrectly in some areas. The Washoe County planning director told the court that plans to build a new middle school are being disrupted by the sage grouse requirements.

The school district's plight of having to look for alternative sites caused the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to extend the comment period in proceedings to implement the new regulations. BLM said they would look at complaints on a case-by-case basis.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife, which supports the sage grouse regulations, has indicated that Washoe County's proposed school site is outside the three-mile buffer zone between sage grouse and development. Department officials told the AP they would provide new maps that would counter "misrepresentations and inaccuracies" regarding the new school plans.

Throughout recent years of debate on the bird's fate, states have maintained individually and through the Western Governors Association that they are better able to oversee dwindling greater sage grouse habitat than are federal regulators (see Shale Daily, Sept. 21). Jewell estimated that 90% of the highest potential oil/natural gas development areas are outside the "priority" habitat lands where the strongest protections apply.

In Congress, opposition sentiments were offered by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), who called the Interior Department-state action a "cynical ploy" to cordon off large swatches of western lands from future drilling, mining, grazing and recreational activity.

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