Critics push back against federal protection for bird in rural West

Ranchers, miners, energy developers and public officials are voicing concerns over the federal government's push to protect a bird roughly the size of a chicken, fearing possible restrictions on public lands that could have deep economic consequences in the rural West.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a judge's order to make a final determination on listing the Greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species. The species is found in 11 Western states, including Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Oregon.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, the sage grouse have declined in number over the past century because of the loss of critical sagebrush habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to list as threatened populations of the sage grouse in Nevada and California.

Ranchers and the oil and gas industry dodged regulations in 2005 when the government decided against extending new protections. The possible listing has been compared to the northern spotted owl, whose listing as a threatened species in 1990 drew criticism from the logging industry in the Northwest, according to The Associated Press.

Grant Gerber, a commissioner in Elko County, Nevada, and longtime critic of U.S. land managers says he's convinced the feds have already made up their mind to list the sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species.

But a Bureau of Land Management official says that's not the case and insisted at a public meeting in Elko last week they want the community's input on how best to save the troubled bird without a federal listing.

Gerber, a former state lawmaker, suggested the BLM and U.S. Forest Service are seeking comment on a regional sage-grouse conservation plan only to placate critics of the push to protect the Greater sage grouse.

The draft conservation plan, which applies to all of Nevada and parts of northern California, includes more than a third of the preliminary prime habitat and general habitat identified in Elko County at about 7.8 million acres, the Elko Daily Free Press reported.

“In the rest of the state, it’s a horrible situation. In Elko County, it’s a death blow," Elko County Commissioner Jeff Williams said. “In Elko County, it’s the whole county. It’s everything we’ve got. It’s recreation, it’s mining, it’s oil, it’s agriculture."

Williams said sage grouse could “shut the county down,” according to the report.

At a meeting on Thursday, the commissioners said none of the outlined actions in the draft plan were preferable and floated the possibility of filing suit against the federal government.

Former Republican Assemblyman John Carpenter said he believes the government is determined to list the chicken-sized game bird as part of a bigger strategy to lock up federal lands.

"These people don't give a damn about the sage grouse. All it is is for control," Carpenter told the Elko Daily Free Press.

"They want to get control of the people that are using the public land and get them off," he said. "They want to get the cowboys and the miners and recreationists and everybody else and get them off."

BLM Elko District Manager Jill Silvey disagreed with Carpenter's assertion that the BLM was in favor of a listing.

"That's clearly not our objective," she said about the listing decision the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make in the fall of 2014.

After the BLM reviews public comment on the proposal, it will develop a proposed conservation plan to be drafted around June. That will be followed by agency review and a 60-day governor's consistency review and a protest period, with the intention is to issue a public record of decision by Sept. 30. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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