You may never have heard of a sage grouse, but this chicken-like wild bird will cost Nevada millions of dollars if federal agencies put it on the Endangered Species list. Conservationists, industry stakeholders and government representatives in Nevada have been discussing the sage grouse since 2000, and the governor even appointed a blue-ribbon commission to study it. Why has this small bird ruffled so many feathers? Like other problems we’re dealing with these days, it all started with the federal government.
The “greater sage grouse” is found in 11 western states and in 15 Nevada counties. Its population has been declining over the past several decades due to a number of factors, including wildfires, invasive weeds and development. In March 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced they were placing the sage grouse on their list of species being considered as “endangered.”
This set off alarm bells across the state, and rightly so. Remember what happened in Oregon when the spotted owl was declared endangered in 1990? Tens of thousands of jobs in the logging industry were lost, and entire towns lost their major source of income. The Nevada Department of Wildlife director told the Nevada Mining Association’s 2011 convention that the sage grouse could become “spotted owl times ten” if it is listed as an endangered species.
Every bird and every acre of its habitat would be protected by the full force of the federal government. Violating the provisions of the Endangered Species Act can result in a maximum fine of up to $500,000 or imprisonment for one year, or both, and civil penalties of up to $25,000 per occurrence. Millions of acres of public lands throughout the West could be withdrawn from mineral exploration, grazing, and other uses. The BLM has already declared 61,000 acres off-limits for oil and gas leases because they are (or may be) in sage grouse habitat.
The Nevada industry that’s most threatened by this federal foolishness is mining, one of the only bright spots in the Nevada economy for the last few years. The deadline for the feds to decide whether to list the sage grouse is September 2015. If you owned a mining company, would you invest millions of dollars in exploration and development on land that may later be designated a protected sage-grouse area? This uncertainty has had a chilling effect on investment, and it has caused many mine owners to delay timelines at facilities that are already operating.
But mining isn’t the only industry affected. Energy companies have power lines running across the sagebrush lands, ranchers have cattle grazing there, and many other businesses make their living through tourism, hunting and fishing, and recreational activities. Rural communities in Nevada will lose jobs and tax income because of the sage grouse.
The governors of the 11 Western states have been given a deadline to come up with their own “sage grouse management” plans to avoid having one imposed on them by the feds. Governor Sandoval’s Greater Sage-Grouse Advisory Committee issued a 47-page report in July recommending that the sage grouse be considered when planning any project: either go around their breeding grounds, or minimize the impact by re-routing roads or power lines if necessary. Hopefully, the feds will accept the state’s plan instead of imposing their own.
But why should we have to jump through these hoops in the first place? Every state should be able to use common sense to balance the needs of the environment against its need for jobs and a healthy economy. Whose rights are more important: Nevada taxpayers or a few sage grouse? I’d like to see where the U.S. Constitution grants the right of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to wild chickens.
Originally published in Nevada Business Magazine: