CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Protecting western lifestyles and economic opportunities by keeping sage grouse off the Endangered Species List has been a high-stakes juggling act for Nevada and other states around the West for more than a decade.
But as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes closer to having to make a decision on whether the chicken-size bird deserves federal protection, which some fear could put the brakes on mining, ranching, energy and other economic development programs, Gov. Brian Sandoval is stepping up Nevada's efforts to stave off a listing and show the federal government that creating jobs and opportunities can coexist with sage grouse protection.
Sandoval, a first-term Republican, last week signed an executive order establishing a greater sage grouse advisory committee. He charged the nine-person panel — whose members have not yet been named — to recommend an action plan by July 31.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined sage grouse deserved federal protection, but other species were higher priorities. A recent legal settlement now gives the agency until 2015 to decide the bird's status — threatened or endangered or not in need of federal protection.
The late Gov. Kenny Guinn formed Nevada's first sage grouse committee in 2000. Sandoval spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said the new advisory panel will expand on that committee's work.
The hope is that by taking state initiative to protect the bird, whose numbers have fallen dramatically in the last century, federal intervention can be avoided.
"It is clear that the status quo will not prevent the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act," Kinner said in an email to The Associated Press, adding Sandoval believes Nevada can't wait until 2015 to take action.
"The governor wants the plan ready for federal review by this fall to ensure we have time to implement or make any revisions."
Concern about sage grouse has already stalled some energy projects. Last month, the BLM removed 33 parcels covering 61,000 acres of public lands in Nevada from an oil and gas lease sale because they are in sage grouse habitat.
That decision came shortly after BLM deferred ruling on the proposed China Mountain Wind Energy project on the Nevada-Idaho line until the agency completes an environmental impact statement on sage grouse. News of that delay was met with anger in Elko County, where one county commissioner said the prospect of high-paying jobs in the region could be killed by a "stupid bird."
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., didn't call the bird names, but criticized the BLM for stalling Nevada's economic recovery.
"The sage grouse are not threatened by energy projects or mining operations, which comprise less than 1 percent of Nevada's land area," said Amodei, former president of the Nevada Mining Association.
"Such delays needlessly halt conventional and renewable energy projects that can create jobs and power the growth of Nevada's economy."
Amodei said wildfires are the biggest threat to the bird.
Wildlife experts don't disagree, but say flame-charred habitat is just one of many threats to the species' long-term viability.