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Feds weigh mineral mining ban on 10M acres to protect bird

A male sage grouse struts in the early morning hours on a leak outside Baggs, Wyoming, in April 2015.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has nixed plans to withdraw 10 million acres of public land from exploration and mining to protect greater sage-brush habitat, finding that future mining is not a threat to the habitat.

Acting BLM Director Mike Nedd said analysis showed that less than 0.1 percent of the 10 million acres would be affected by mining.

“The proposal to withdraw 10 million acres to prevent 10,000 (acres) from potential mineral development was a complete overreach,” he said in an announcement Thursday.

Nedd said that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has “said from the beginning that by working closely with the states, who are on the front lines and a valued partner in protecting the health of these lands, we can be successful in conserving greater sage-grouse habitat without stifling economic development and job growth.”

The decision is good news for the mining industry, according to the American Exploration & Mining Association.

“These land-use restrictions and withdrawals were a blatant overreach by the BLM and a thinly veiled attempt to impose a top-down policy, completely disregarding states’ efforts, statutory requirements and public involvement,” AEMA Executive Director Laura Skaer said.

“Now, thanks to President Trump and Secretary Zinke, the governors are back in the driver’s seat when it comes to the proper management of public lands in their states. We urge all governors to take full advantage of this opportunity and step up to make the necessary changes to these flawed plans,” she said.

The restrictions and land withdrawals would have had a devastating impact on the economies of Western states, according to the association.

The BLM stated that the lands will continue to be managed in accordance with existing plans, programs, policies and regulations in Nevada, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. New mining claims were on hold for two years beginning when the withdrawals were proposed in 2015. That hold ended Sept. 24.

Also Thursday in related action, the BLM offered the public an opportunity to comment as it explores amendments to greater sage-grouse land use plans, to help improve sage-grouse conservation and strengthen collaboration between the states and federal government.

The agency wrote that its offer follows a U.S. District Court ruling in March that the BLM’s designation of sagebrush focal areas in the 2015 plan amendment for Nevada was illegal. The plans covered 10 Western states, including Nevada.

The action on the proposed withdrawal of 10 million acres from mining affects six states, but the plan for amendments to sage-grouse conservation plans covers California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Montana, the BLM announcements state.

The Wilderness Society was critical of the BLM’s latest actions, writing that the intention to change plans is consistent with Zinke’s focus on energy and threatens habitat protection.

“The Interior Department is traversing down a dangerous path that could put this vital habitat at risk,” said Nada Culver, senior director of policy and planning at The Wilderness Society. “These plans took nearly a decade of collaboration and planning with a variety of Western stakeholders and should not be torn apart in mere months.”

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“Wildlife protection remains an important priority for our industry, which is why we participated with Governor Sandoval’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to craft a Nevada-driven program

to address the real threats to Sage Grouse habitat,” said Nevada Mining Association President Dana Bennett.

“A wholesale land withdrawal that encompassed 20 times more land than all mining activity combined did little to address the risk of fire and invasive species that threaten the species and its habitat. We remain committed to continue working with Nevada’s Department of Wildlife and the BLM toward the development of viable solutions,” she added.

The BLM is posting a notice of intent, and a 45-day comment period begins as soon as the notice is published in the Federal Register. Public meetings also will be announced at later dates, according to the agency.

“The BLM is committed to being a good neighbor and cooperating with its partners at all levels of government, including states, as well as tribal leaders, industry and conservation groups, ranchers and other stakeholders throughout the amendment process, Nedd said.

He said the BLM will be especially interested in hearing from “the many governors whose states put hard work and time into collaborative efforts to develop the existing plans.”

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