In a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) published in the Federal Register on Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offered the possibility of setting aside 10 million acres in six western states to protect greater sage grouse habitat.
As one of five alternatives offered in the DEIS, BLM offered a draft proposal to withdraw a subset of lands in the ground-dwelling birds' habitat from future mining claims in six states: Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
During the comment period, which ends March 30, BLM said it will host eight public meetings throughout the West in February "to gather input on the proposal and alternatives to the proposal." Input from the states, Native American tribes and other stakeholders helped develop the DEIS, according to BLM Assistant Director Kristin Bail.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell originally introduced the proposed acreage withdrawals in 2015 when she decided to protect the greater sage grouse with a set of public-private conservation programs at the state level, and not through listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Jewell has called it the largest land conservation effort ever undertaken.
Along with a series of public meetings earlier this year, BLM drew upon a mineral resource assessment prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey to help develop a scenario for the DEIS. To this document, BLM added an amendment that would add another 388,000 acres to the nearly 10 million acres in play.
BLM is recommending that the Interior secretary eventually provide the additional sage grouse safeguards, based on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identifying "habitat disturbance and fragmentation caused by certain hardrock mining operations" as a threat to the greater sage grouse habitat.
In the DEIS, BLM lists five alternatives for consideration:
No action -- the baseline that all alternatives are compared to and would continue management of locatable mineral exploration and development in accordance with existing plans, programs, policies, and regulations in the proposed withdrawal area;
Up to 10 million acres of federal locatable minerals would be set aside;
Alternative in which Nevada requests that for the proposed acreage withdrawals substituting 387,981 acres adjacent to sagebrush focal areas for 487,756 acres of high mineral potential within the proposed withdrawal areas;
Remove from the proposed set-asides some high mineral potential areas in the six states totaling 558,918 acres; and
State of Idaho alternative removing 538,742 acres of high and moderate mineral potential.
In all of its proposals, the DEIS is focused on sagebrush focal areas, which are the anchor of the range-wide conservation strategy for protecting the greater sage grouse from the threat of hardrock mining, subject to valid existing rights, a BLM spokesperson said.