Agency also cancels mining withdrawals

A male sage grouse displays its plumage.

In accordance with campaign promises by President Donald Trump to facilitate more development of natural resources on Western lands, the U.S. Department of the Interior last week announced two moves that could ease restrictions on sage-grouse habitat.

The department announced on Oct. 5 that following a federal court decision in Nevada in March, it may amend some or all of the federal sage-grouse management plans in 10 Western states, including Idaho.

In support of a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not place sage grouse on the federal endangered species list, federal land-use plans throughout the West were amended in 2015 to better protect the birds’ habitat. The plans were supported by most Western governors, but the Idaho plan was challenged in federal court by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter. The suit, filed in September 2015, was dismissed in January 2017 on the grounds that the state had not shown any injury.

The state of Nevada, nine Nevada counties, three mining companies and a privately owned ranch also filed suit, challenging the plan for federal land in Nevada. The plaintiffs argued, among other things, that in their final environmental impact statements, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service designated an additional 2.8 million acres of Sagebrush Focal Areas—the most important sage-grouse habitat—after releasing a draft EIS without them. The court ruled that the public should have had an opportunity to comment on the change, and ordered the agencies to prepare a supplemental EIS to correct the deficiency.

The BLM announced Oct. 5 that as a result of that decision, it is beginning the scoping process to solicit public comments on sage-grouse land management issues that could warrant plan amendments in all the Western states. The agency stated that it wants to receive input on whether that planning effort should occur through state-by-state amendment processes. 

“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,” BLM Acting Director Mike Nedd said in the release.  “During this process, we are particularly interested in hearing from the many governors whose states put hard work and time into collaborative efforts to develop the existing plans.  We welcome their input.”

The announcement was met by strong objections from conservation groups.

“This administration is playing chicken with the sage-grouse extinction,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director with Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project. “The Department of Interior is now abandoning all pretense of protecting sage grouse in a stampede to ramp up commercial exploitation of public lands.”

Western Watersheds Project and a coalition of allies are already litigating the earlier plans because of alleged departures from the agencies’ own scientific recommendations of what the grouse needs to survive. The organization stated that it is unclear what effect the announcement will have on ongoing litigation.

The 2015 plan includes 285,000 acres of “priority” sage-grouse habitat and 255,000 acres of general habitat on BLM land in southern Blaine County, as well as 58,600 acres of Sagebrush Focal Areas on the Sawtooth National Forest and 189,400 acres on the Salmon-Challis National Forest, including 164,600 acres on the Lost River Ranger District.

Mining withdrawals

Also last week, the BLM announced that it has rescinded a proposal to put about 10 million acres of Sagebrush Focal Areas in six Western states off limits to filing new mining claims.

The land withdrawal was proposed in 2015 as part of the decision to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list, and a draft environmental impact statement on the proposal was released on December 2016, under the Obama administration.

The withdrawal included nearly 4 million acres in southern Idaho, with some areas in southern Blaine County and the Big Lost River Valley.

The withdrawals would not have affected existing mines or claims.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the 3.8 million acres of sage-grouse focal areas in Idaho make up about 28 percent of the species’ entire habitat in the state. Under the December draft EIS, the remaining habitat acreage was to remain open to new mining claims.

    Without the proposed withdrawal, the EIS estimated there would be nine new mines and 26 exploration projects on the lands proposed for withdrawal statewide; with withdrawal under the proposed alternative, that would have been reduced to one new mine and three exploration projects.

In a news release issued Oct. 5, the BLM stated that it had determined that the proposal to withdraw 10 million acres was unreasonable in light of data that showed that mining would affect less than 0.1 percent of sage-grouse-occupied range.

“The proposal to withdraw 10 million acres to prevent 10,000 from potential mineral development was a complete overreach,” Acting BLM Director Mike Nedd said. “[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. And that’s what we intend to do—protect important habitat while also being a good neighbor to states and local communities.” 

In a news release following the announcement, the American Exploration & Mining Association stated its support for the decision.

“Secretary Zinke has done the right thing by ending this epic federal land grab,” said Laura Skaer, the organization’s executive director. “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.”

The organization stated that the restrictions and withdrawals were set to have a “devastating economic impact on the economies of Western states and the ability of our nation to produce the strategic and critical minerals required for national defense and economic prosperity.”

Areas that had been proposed for withdrawal in or near the Wood River Valley were:

Two areas in the southern Wood River Valley on either side of state Highway 75, with reserves of gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper and rare earth elements.

An area on both sides of U.S. Highway 20 northwest of Hot Springs Landing at Magic Reservoir with reserves of an unusual form of pumice. For more than 20 years, the Moonstone pumice mine has extracted a unique gold-colored variety of pumice for multiple uses.

The southern Fish Creek Reservoir area, with reserves of zinc, copper and molybdenum.

An area above the town of Mackay in the White Knob Mountains in the Copper Basin mining area, containing copper, zinc, silver, gold, lead and molybdenum.

The Timbered Dome area north of Craters of the Moon National Monument west of Arco, which includes the site of the Champagne Creek open-pit gold mine, which operated from 1989 through 1993.

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