Federal officials are beginning to realize that cattle are not the enemy of wildlife on the open range.
When a team of Interior Department officials this week released a proposal to loosen land use restrictions in sage grouse country, they included a positive statement on the impact of livestock grazing on sage grouse habitat. The document says “proper grazing management is compatible with conserving GRSG habitat and, in some situations, may support or benefit habitat management.”
That change in policy is a victory for ranchers and a victory for Nevada, which went to great lengths under Gov. Brian Sandoval to craft a state-specific sage grouse conservation plan. Under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order, states will have more leeway when it comes to decisions involving traditional land uses such as grazing, mining and energy production.
Adopting a more flexible sage grouse policy that includes state and local guidance makes sense. That was the original goal here in Nevada, before our state was molded in with the rest of the West.
One of the nine people on the Interior’s Sage Grouse Review Team is none other than John Ruhs, former Nevada Bureau of Land Management director and now the federal agency’s deputy director of operations. As state director, Ruhs declared that “a collaborative network of local, state and federal partners is essential for protecting the sagebrush ecosystem while ensuring multiple uses.”
The change is also a victory for Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt and Elko County Commissioners.
“I agree with Secretary Zinke that the federal government and Nevada can protect the sage-grouse and its habitat, while also ensuring that conservation efforts do not undermine job growth and local communities,” Laxalt said in response to this week’s announcement.
Laxalt and Elko County sued over the Obama-era restrictions, along with Utah and Idaho.
The changes may also turn into a victory for private companies that had been exploring for gold in northern Elko County before the sage grouse restrictions. Western Exploration LLC and Quantum Minerals LLC were among the parties that filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court.
Opponents complained, of course, that the changes would be harmful.
“The flexibility that was built into these plans has created loopholes that this administration intends to exploit for its energy, mineral, and development agenda on our public lands,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project.
The only way to tell which side is “right” is by looking at bird populations – something Zinke’s Interior Department plans to do. But even that strategy is controversial, with some western governors agreeing that the numbers don’t mean much. Indeed, the whole idea of “sage grouse” conservation morphed into “sagebrush” conservation because the number of grouse varies widely from year to year and decade to decade, despite what is happening on the ground.
The West no longer has millions of sage grouse, but that’s not because they are being displaced by people or human activity. The biggest factors are the combined threat of fire and invasive species. It will take more than a policy change in Washington, D.C., to stop the cycle of cheatgrass-driven wildfires from destroying native vegetation.
In the meantime, we expect the sage grouse will continue to survive – in numbers great enough to be hunted as game – without undue disturbance from resource industries like mining and ranching.