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Elko County asks governor to rescind habitat order

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Mule Deer

Mule deer feed on grass near the Ruby Marshes.

ELKO – Critics of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s executive order creating a Nevada Habitat Conservation Framework say there already are plans and programs in place covering what he ordered, and they question the need for the Nevada Department of Wildlife to set up the framework.

Elko County Commissioners are sending a letter to the governor outlining their concerns and urging Sisolak to rescind the order and “instead work to make sure the agencies currently in charge of managing the sagebrush habitat are fully staffed and funded so the positive changes we are all anxious to see can start taking effect.”

Along with pointing out that the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council is carrying out the habitat plan for restoring sagebrush, the letter opposes the governor’s order to create a statewide connectivity plan and outlines concerns about declining mule deer numbers.

The county’s natural resources director, Curtis Moore, said “parts of the order are very broad,” and there are policies in place now for conserving sagebrush habitat for sage grouse, wildlife concerns and grazing issues, so the framework will “create more confusion.”

Commissioner Delmo Andreozzi said he thought it was “odd there is this duplicity effort being made.”

Rachel Buzzetti, secretary of the Nevada Outfitters and Guides, said she thought the framework order “was a huge slap in the face from the governor” after the many hours of time and travel put in by the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council.

Moore said he would include mention of the “countless hours” spent by the sagebrush council in the final county letter.

Gerald Dixon, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Elko district manager, said the BLM will be “lobbying for a seat at the table” for the framework, and he also said there already are “so many committees and subcommittees. We can’t keep up with so many groups with the same goals.”

Sisolak’s order calls for NDOW to collaboratively establish the framework for “habitat conservation, restoration, rehabilitation and protection in a coordinated and inclusive manner across landownerships and in partnership with federal land management agencies, other relevant state and local agencies, stakeholders, and local entities.”

The order says that the framework must be approved by the Nevada Wildlife Commission.

The order also says that NDOW will develop a comprehensive Sagebrush Habitat Plan to be available on the NDOW website by Dec. 31, 2023.

The plan will be developed in collaboration with the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Program that has “regulatory authority over greater sage-grouse mitigation in Nevada and has created sage grouse conservation planning documents, tools and guidance that can offer support in this effort,” the order issued Aug. 23 states.

NDOW regional Game Division Supervising Biologist Tom Donham said that “these won’t be independent/unrelated efforts when it comes to sage-grouse habitat but will be a united effort in order to ensure that any habitat conservation or improvement efforts related to the order will not conflict with what is being done for sage-grouse.”

He also said via email that the order won’t affect what Elko County is now doing.

“In a nutshell, it probably won’t change what we are doing too much because the issues that need addressed won’t be changing any time soon, but it could actually be helpful in focusing our efforts more effectively,” Donham said.

He said, however, “it could change things a bit due to the fact it will ultimately increase the level of collaboration and coordination with counties, federal and state agencies and stakeholders.”

Stakeholders will include organizations or individuals representing sportsmen’s groups, conservation and environmental protection, farming and ranching, private landowners, rural communities, native tribal communities, outdoor recreation, real estate developers, transportation, mineral and renewal energy developers and linear infrastructure entities, Donham said.

“By increasing the level of collaboration, particularly with counties and local stakeholders, there may be ways to improve what we are currently doing,” he said.

The current state plan is the 2014 Nevada Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan. The Sagebrush Ecosystem Council and the Sagebrush Ecosystem Technical Team were formed in response to an executive order by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Elko County Commissioners on Oct. 6 also voted to support a letter Lincoln County Commissioners sent to Sisolak on Sept. 7 urging him to rescind the framework order, and the Elko County letter says commissioners “echo those concerns.”

“I don’t think Lincoln County is out of place” writing the letter to the governor, Buzzetti said in public comment, reporting that Lincoln County still hasn’t heard back from Sisolak.

Lincoln County Commissioners stated that they were concerned over the executive order that gives direction and power to NDOW and is “troublesome to use and in direct conflict with current Nevada law.”

Lincoln County’s commissioners wrote that the direction to establish the Nevada Habitat Conservation Framework “flies directly in the face of the statute that creates, empowers and directs the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Program to do this work (which is already done but the state has neglected to fund to any adequate degree.) We have endorsed and supported the efforts of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council and the work of the program to benefit sagebrush obligate species.”

The Elko County letter also urges predator control for sage grouse conservation. Commissioner Cliff Eklund told commissioners there is nothing said in the order about predator control.

“Ravens are the biggest predators to sage grouse, and the coyote population used to be kept under control,” Eklund said.

The Elko County letter states that NDOW “would better serve the people of Nevada by helping study and prevent observed problems like raven predation on sage grouse nests. Raven density is widely recognized as one of the key factors in the decline of the sage grouse. Other initiatives like the conservation credit system need to be given time to work without the meddling of agencies working outside their statutory authority.”

In addition, the letter states that “we would like to point out that NDOW’s efforts to conserve Nevada’s game species have a real and lasting impact on rural economies,” and the letter includes a graph that shows “an alarming decline in hunter success, attributed to the decline in Nevada’s mule deer herd.”

Elko County’s letter cites a 2019 University of Nevada, Reno report showing that more than $500,000 was added to the county’s economy through hunting and fishing, and a hunter’s success is one factor in a hunter’s decision of how much they are willing to pay to pursue game in a particular area.

“So, the decline of hunter success in a remote county like Elko is particularly concerning,” the letter states.

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