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BLM Finalizes Sage-Grouse Protections in Nevada, California

The Department of Interior's (DOI) Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has finalized a plan to protect a unique subset of greater sage-grouse with habitat in west-central Nevada and eastern California, building on protections the federal government rolled out last year.

On Friday, BLM Nevada State Director John Ruhs signed a record of decision (ROD) covering the Nevada and California Greater Sage Grouse Bi-State Distinct Population Segment, a group of birds whose habitat includes approximately 280,000 acres of public administered by the BLM in Nevada's Carson City, Douglas, Esmeralda, Lyon and Mineral counties, and in Alpine County, CA.

The ROD signed by Ruhs makes permanent several changes to a land use plan amendment (LUPA) prepared by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) that covers the aforementioned 280,000 acres.

Specifically, the BLM set a total man-made disturbance limit of no more than 3% of the birds' habitat on federal lands within three population management units (PMU) -- Bodie Mountain-Grant, Desert Creek-Fales and White Mountains -- and 1.5% within the Pine Nut Mountains PMU. The PMUs, established to protect the greater sage-grouse, straddle the California-Nevada border.

The BLM also prohibited the construction of tall structures within four miles of an active or pending lek, a mating area in the field where males compete for visiting females, because they could be used as perches by predators. The agency also designated right-of-way exclusion areas within the birds' habitat for new 120-kilovolt transmission line corridors, and clarified that "connective areas will be maintained or enhanced."

The ROD was published in Friday's edition of the Federal Register.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the variant of greater sage-grouse in west central Nevada and eastern California is also known as the Mono Basin Area population of birds. "Several studies have documented that greater sage-grouse in this geographic area are genetically unique compared to populations of greater sage-grouse elsewhere in the species range," FWS said on its website. "However, the full extent of this uniqueness is yet to be determined."

In December 2014, DOI Secretary Sally Jewell told the Western Governors' Association (WGA) that the Obama administration was committed to protecting the greater sage-grouse (see Daily GPIDec. 9, 2014), but it also wanted to avoid listing the bird on the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Two months later, the USFS served as the lead agency in preparing an environmental impact statement and developed the LUPA for the aforementioned areas.

By April 2015, the WGA lauded a determination by the FWS that the bi-state population no longer needed to be labeled as endangered, and took it as a sign that oil and gas development could coexist with the birds (see Daily GPIApril 28, 2015). The FWS officially declined to list the bird on the ESA that September, in part because the bird population appeared to be on the rebound (see Daily GPISept. 22, 2015Aug. 20, 2015Aug. 6, 2015).

But earlier this month, the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) and the North Dakota Petroleum Council filed a lawsuit challenging federal land-use plan amendments to the greater sage-grouse protections (see Daily GPIMay 13). The groups allege parts of the federal plans do not conform to state plans for greater sage-grouse mitigation programs.

"The BLM is treating the bi-state population in a similar manner to the overall greater sage-grouse," Kathleen Sgamma, WEA vice president for government and public affairs, told NGI on Friday. "On-the-ground conservation efforts are sustaining stable and rising population numbers of both, yet the BLM is imposing top-down plans that will discourage these local and state efforts.

"The 3% disturbance cap is the same as that imposed for greater sage-grouse, which we're challenging in our lawsuit."

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