ELKO — In a lengthy brainstorming session Thursday, county commissioners floated a range of ideas to keep sage-grouse from an endangered species listing, including the possibility of filing suit against the federal government.
The commission met to discuss a proposed regional sage-grouse habitat conservation plan, drafted by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, but board members unanimously agreed none of the six outlined actions were preferable.
Commissioners said they ought to do what environmental groups have a reputation for doing and foster change through litigation.
In this case, the board wants to demand the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which commissioner Grant Gerber called a “rogue agency” that was abusing the Endangered Species Act to gain control and funding, justify a looming inclusion as endangered or threatened with a species number.
“It’s worth a suit over the numbers,” John Carpenter, former assemblyman, said during public comment.
Commissioner Demar Dahl suggested county staff explore that idea and bring it back before the commission at a future meeting. The board said across the West potentially affected industry, communities and local governments could pool together to fund such an endeavor.
Whether a lawsuit becomes a reality, residents who commented at the meeting agreed sage-grouse needed to be counted.
“We need a census,” said Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka. “We’ve got too many birds in the state of Nevada at this point to ever list it as endangered.”
Commissioner Charlie Myers agreed the argument needed to shift back to bird population numbers instead of acres of habitat.
The first option, Alternative A, calls for no action, but the commissioners said the BLM had already taken action “without notice and without hearing” when it implemented a sage-grouse interim management plan, which deferred approval of projects in sage-grouse habitat.
Unless regulations in the interim management plan were scaled back, the commissioners said, they couldn’t support the no-action alternative.
Commissioners have said the BLM’s interim management plan has already affected the county’s economy without the bird’s status changing at all.
BLM Elko District Manager Jill Silvey said in actuality no projects in the district were denied because of the sage-grouse interim management plan. An Idaho district made the decision to defer a proposed wind farm on the Idaho Nevada border, she added.
Goicoechea differed with the commission’s stance on the no-action alternative.
“You have to take it at face value: It says ‘no action,’” he said. Goicoechea said until a sage-grouse census proves a listing is warranted, agencies should take no action.
Not only were the commissioners critical of the options in the draft, but they criticized the intentions behind it.
Gerber said he believed the draft document to be intentionally “mind numbing” in the way it is written.
Myers said the plans seemed to pit land users against one another. One option that limits grazing, he said, doesn’t affect recreation.
But Joe Tague, Nevada BLM chief for renewable resources and project lead, has said the agencies won’t select one option, but pull ideas from each based on comments provided by the public.
Many elected officials throughout the West have worried how a listing would change their states, Dahl pointed out. But Elko County, with vast acres of rangeland, is acutely concerned.
The draft EIS, which applies to all of Nevada and parts of northern California, identifies more than a third of the preliminary prime habitat and general habitat to be in Elko County at about 7.8 million acres.
“In the rest of the state, it’s a horrible situation. In Elko County, it’s a death blow,” Commissioner Jeff Williams said.
On the back wall of the commissioner’s meeting room, the county has placed a large map in which nearly all of Elko County is colored to demarcate sage-grouse habitat.
“In Elko County, it’s the whole county,” Williams said, referencing the map. “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.”
During the meeting, the county proposed other ideas, such as submit its own plan as an option. The county created a sage-grouse conservation document that focuses on wildfire reduction through grazing and killing sage-grouse predators. The USFWS listed predators as a low threat to the species, however.
Gerber suggested local lawmakers draft a bill to ban sage-grouse hunting and another to allow hunting of ravens, which are included in a migratory bird treaty and killing them is heavily regulated by the federal government.
“I think it’s the right thing to do but I think it will have zero impact,” Myers said.
Former sheriff Dale Lotspeich said he had been a passive resident regarding the issue in the past, but said he now wanted to help, but wasn’t sure how. He asked the county to come up with a few concrete points that could help residents, such as himself, to submit useful comments to the agencies.
The commissioners said advertising and public outreach might rouse more residents to act.
The deadline to comment on the EIS is Jan. 29. Despite their concerns about the process, commissioners all said they intended to comment and encouraged residents to do the same.
The county wasn’t scheduled to vote Thursday, but the same topic will come back before the board in January so the commission can finalize its comment.