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December 19, 2014

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Listing sage grouse as protected would be disastrous for Nevada

“Endangered desert tortoise halts Las Vegas development.” This was the headline in 1989 soon after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the desert tortoise as an endangered species.

After the tortoise was protected, numerous proposed developments were stopped in their tracks. Off-road races on public lands were blocked and livestock grazing was threatened. “If you have ungraded land that has tortoises on it, it basically stops you dead,” a Clark County administrator said at the time.

The current debate about federal protections for the sage grouse reminds me of the challenges we faced after the tortoise was protected. Much of Southern Nevada was suddenly off-limits to a lot of activities. Federal review and signoff was required for anything potentially affecting tortoises. Anywhere there was a tortoise, there was a potential lawsuit.

This is what will happen in Northern Nevada if the sage grouse is called a threatened species by the Fish and Wildlife Service. But here’s the kicker. Although the desert tortoise inhabits only a small portion of Southern Nevada, sage grouse habitat spans a whopping 20 million acres across the state.

The economic effects of a threatened listing for sage grouse are mind boggling.

Here’s what will happen if the sage grouse is protected under the Endangered Species Act. First, the agency will designate “critical habitat,” which is the land the agency determines is essential for sage grouse survival. This could span tens of millions of acres and likely will cover most of Northern Nevada.

Within that critical habitat, U.S. Fish and Wildlife can regulate any activity — on public or private land — that may affect sage grouse. That means that anyone who wants to do anything that could affect sage grouse habitat will have to ask permission from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Every single land use that is important to Nevada could be impacted, including mining, grazing, recreation, urban development and renewable energy.

Many development projects and other proposed land uses will be stopped dead in their tracks. It happened in Las Vegas 25 years ago, and it will happen here — only on a scale never seen in Nevada.

This is why it is important that Nevada leaders do all they can to ensure that the sage grouse is not protected as an endangered species. We simply cannot afford the risk of such significant damage to Nevada’s economy that such a designation would bring.

The best thing we can do now is to protect as much high-quality sage grouse habitat as possible while developing a funding stream for restoration of degraded habitat. Developers in Southern Nevada are now charged $550 for every acre of tortoise habitat they affect.

With 20/20 hindsight, I wish we had such a fee 35 years ago to undertake actions that would have prevented federal tortoise protections. That could have saved a lot of headaches for Southern Nevada.

Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller are crafting a proposal to set aside sage grouse habitat, provide funding for restoration and ensure continued economic development. Gov. Brian Sandoval has also weighed in with his Sagebrush Ecosystem Council.

The goal of these efforts is to prevent the need for the Fish and Wildlife Service to step in and protect sage grouse. For the sake of Nevada, I hope they succeed. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has never been more true. We need a made-in-Nevada solution to sage grouse, and we need it fast.

Terry Murphy is the president of Strategic Solutions, a government affairs firm, and helped craft Clark County’s desert tortoise conservation plan in the early 1990s.

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