ELKO – How new regulations concerning sage grouse will affect business in the West is a hot topic, but the mines have been handling wildlife regulations for years.
The two largest mining companies in Nevada, Newmont Mining Corp. and Barrick Gold Corp., both have a history of setting up programs or systems on their sites to coexist with wildlife. These programs include grazing cattle on their ranches to improve the habitat for sage grouse and other wildlife.
All mines must adhere to the minimum requirements set up by the regulatory agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Department of Wildlife. However, many mines follow company regulations that exceed the ones set by government agencies, said Jeff White, Newmont director of renewable resources of North America.
“We operate in both a regulatory environment and a company standards or self-imposed requirements environment. We hold ourselves to a high standard in being committed to a leadership position in environmental stewardship and community responsibility,” he said.
Before any dirt is moved, staff and the government agencies – usually the BLM -- do a survey of the land to set “an environmental baseline,” White said. This can include soil identification, species identification and monitoring, and vegetation inventory.
“We use that information in developing a plan of operations significantly around the reclamation plan,” he said. “… That reclamation plan is a key component of the plan of operations. It also serves as an independent application for our reclamation permit from Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.”
Once a plan is set in place and approved, the mines then implement the strategies devised.
In some areas it can be as simple as putting in barriers to keep wildlife from chemicals, such as “bird balls” put on top of leach ponds.
Deer movements on and around mines are a concern for several Newmont and Barrick mines. Both companies have changed mine plans to accommodate deer herd migrations.
On some sites, the berms set up on haul roads have cuts in them to allow animals, such as deer, to move through the site.
White said the company’s most recent mine project, Long Canyon, had to monitor the deer moving through the property, which is about 30 miles east of Wells on the eastern side of the Pequop Mountain Range in Elko County and about five miles south of Interstate 80 at the Oasis exit. Long Canyon’s ground breaking was April 17.
The principal corridor for deer movement goes through the property.
“To help define that we worked with the Department of Wildlife and University of Nevada, Reno in designing and implementing a deer movement study,” White said. “So there were radio collars and GPS locators on the deer and that gave a very detailed picture of how the deer use that landscape.”
That study helped Newmont design where the mine site facilities, such as office space and truck shops, would be constructed. It also informed the company where to put the deer corridor and how large to make it, he said.
In the initial construction of the mine, Newmont had to clear the vegetation and top soil of some of the area where the deer migrate, on the west side of the waste-rock facility. However, once initial construction is completed, that area will be the first to be reclaimed so it minimizes impact on the herds.
Newmont chipped the trees that were cut and the top soil was stored so it could be used in the reclamation, according to Gordon Mountford, project director for Long Canyon.
Long Canyon also will have cuts in its haul road berms to allow deer movement.
“We’re trying to minimize the effect on the deer, that’s all part of our planning effort,” White said. “Associated with that, we’ll continue the monitoring, so this comes back to long term monitoring considerations. So, we’ll have collared animals for a period of time, I don’t recall how long, but that will help us collectively understand how the deer are moving through the mine site.”
Barrick’s Bald Mountain is going through a similar process in its expansion plans. Josh Roderick, environmental superintendent for Bald Mountain, said one of the biggest challenges at the site is its mule deer migration corridor. Roderick said the company has worked with NDOW, BLM, the Nevada Coalition for Wildlife, and groups to design Bald Mountain’s expansion plan.
Another recurring group of animals the mines have to deal with are birds.
All the mines in Nevada have set plans in place for birds. During Long Canyon’s construction, the site had to set up a buffer zone around a group of migratory birds – burrowing owls -- that were nesting on the site. While the birds were there, Newmont was not allowed to identify the species.
“In an effort to protect species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the species identification and location is generally withheld from the public,” Dan Anderson, Newmont regional environmental affairs manager, told the Mining Quarterly while the owls were still on the property.
White said because of the inventory, Long Canyon employees knew burrowing owls were on the site, but they were “surprised by how long they stayed.” He said construction crews set up the buffer zones to avoid the nest areas.
However, the owls seemed to keep an eye on the equipment.
“That’s what’s kind of cool with the burrowing owls, they just hang out and watch, and do a truck count kind of thing,” he said.
Sage Grouse, Conservation and Cattle
The bird that is talked about most often recently is the greater sage grouse.
Many sites in Nevada have to monitor and possibly handle mitigation around sage grouse habitat.
Bald Mountain Mine has priority and general sage grouse habitat around the site. The North Operations area doesn’t have any leks, but the site’s South Operations does have some leks in proximity to the site, Roderick said. The only mitigation the mine has been required to do so far is noise monitoring, he said. If the noise reaches a particular threshold, the BLM will determine what other mitigation has to take place.
Newmont also is “engaged with sage grouse,” White said.
The company has been involved with sage grouse conservation efforts for at least 15 years, White said.
“In partnership with The Nature Conservancy and others, Newmont is developing a multi-species, landscape-level Sagebrush Ecosystem Conservation Plan and Conservation Bank Program, including approximately 400,000 acres of private lands and large aspects of about 1.4 million acres of federal grazing allotments,” Newmont stated in its Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Conservation Program.
Several Newmont properties are within sage grouse country, and include Long Canyon, part of Carlin operations, Twin Creeks, and its ranches, White said. Newmont has four major ranches: The TS, Horseshoe, Big Springs and IL. They are managed by the Elko Land and Livestock Co., which is a subsidiary of Newmont.
“As far as country that Newmont has influence over, either direct management or operational management, in the case of the allotments, is about 1.8 million acres,” White said. “So that’s a significant chunk of country from a sage grouse conservation standpoint. Especially if you look at the land position that Newmont has and the land position that Barrick has, and our combined conservation efforts, we’re able to do significant good on the landscape for greater sage grouse.”
Newmont is building a “large-scale conservation plan” to improve the habitat it controls to the benefit of sage grouse and other species.
“In so doing we would also generate conservation credits that could be used to offset impacts and effects for future mineral development and exploration activities,” White said.
The main way the company is benefiting the sage grouse is improving habitat on its ranches, especially the IL Ranch.
“This spring, we, through our monitoring work, identified what appears to be the largest active lek in the state of Nevada,” White said. “So we counted 173 males on the first of May on one of our leks on the IL Ranch. That’s pretty exciting. Our current management is doing what it’s supposed to do.”
The conservation effort also includes fighting invasive species, such as cheatgrass.
“The ranches that Newmont has are ecologically and economically sustainable ranchland livestock enterprises, in that we are maintaining the traditional land uses,” White said. “We’re producing food from those landscapes in the form of livestock. So we use the livestock to manage the habitat.”
The landscape is managed through “prudent grazing management, proper utilization, proper distribution of utilization” through grazing systems, fuel breaks and development of water for livestock and wildlife. The development of water can include fixing waterways, such as around Maggie Creek, to allow proper water flow.
Culverts near the confluence of Beaver Creek and Maggie Creek prevented the upstream movement of all fish under any flow conditions. In 2005, Newmont, in cooperation with the BLM and other partners, replaced the culverts. The new culverts are designed to maintain a natural channel inside the culvert, said Natacia Eldridge, external relations representative. This design allows Lahontan cutthroat trout, and other species, to travel unimpeded throughout the Maggie Creek Basin during flow conditions. In addition, the new culverts will withstand flooding much better than the old ones, resulting in fewer washouts.
In some areas they do seeding to establish wanted vegetation on the ranches, but the biggest impact to the habitat may be the cattle.
“Most significantly the livestock are a tool to reduce the biomass of cheatgrass,” White said.
The cattle will eat the cheatgrass, but he said it is “a matter of timing.” The ranchers who manage the cattle will put the animals on certain pieces of land to control what is eaten. For example, cheatgrass will start growing before the native grasses, so the ranchers will put the cattle in certain areas in the spring to eat the young invasive grass to lessen its effect on the other vegetation.
“One of the key tools in identifying our landscapes and designing our treatments is the use of ecological sites,” White said. “An ecological site is a particular piece of the landscape that has unique soil and vegetation characteristics and we can inventory around that and we can characterize different states and phases within that, but most significant is we have ecological models that are tied to those sites.”
Those models are used to help Newmont determine what state the land is in and if that state is wanted.
“If it is not, then we can consult with this model, determine recovery or restoration pathways to bring it to say our reference state if we wanted,” White said. “So that’s key in our management planning. It’s a recognized technique. It’s science-based and it’s leading edge. It’s state of the art, and we’re really proud of what we’re doing.”