The day after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell declared that the greater sage grouse are “not warranted” for listing under the Endangered Species Act, but instead would be protected under a new Greater Sage-Grouse Land Use Plan Amendment (LUPA), Eureka and Elko counties and two mining companies filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block its enforcement.

The plan withdraws 10 million acres across the West — 3 million in Nevada alone — from future mining claims, prohibits oil and gas drilling near breeding grounds and imposes new reviews on grazing permits.

When state Attorney General Adam Laxalt joined the suit on behalf of the state, along with seven more counties, another mining company and a Humboldt ranch, Gov. Brian Sandoval fired off a sharp criticism of the litigation.

“The Governor believes that joining a lawsuit now will chill ongoing discussions between the state and Department of Interior, divert resources from the current strategy of engagement and could actually undermine the ‘not warranted’ decision nearly every stakeholder has been working toward for over a decade,” said a statement released by the governor’s office.

This past week the Eureka County commissioners rebuked the governor for engaging in “private, behind closed doors, and unilateral” negotiations with Jewell that are not legally binding and called on him to instead support the federal litigation.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du refused to grant a preliminary injunction seeking to block enforcement of the LUPA restrictions, saying the parties failed to show irreparable harm if the rules are imposed.

The case is expected to go to trial next year.

The Eureka County commissioners’ four-page statement criticized the governor’s actions and questioned the legitimacy of results that might come from his unilateral, secretive negotiations with the federal land agencies.

“Negotiations by the Governor may legitimize a legally flawed process and may set a dangerous precedent for future land planning and management by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and USFS (U.S. Forest Service) for the 86% of land federally managed in Nevada,” the commissioners write. “The time and proper process to get a LUPA right is before the Record of Decision is signed. Unfortunately, before the Record of Decision, BLM and USFS chose to ignore the bulk of State and county input, and chose not to incorporate any meaningful portions of State and local plans, policies, and proposals for Sage-Grouse conservation. Now, outside and beyond any proper process, steps taken by the Governor to initiate post-decision negotiations may be wide open to challenge by any interests, including interests with ideologies counter to what is best for Nevada. …

“Litigation is therefore necessary; we cannot go back to the drawing board and coordinate to find solutions without restarting the process to ensure it is carried out as intended, and as required by law. It is simply impossible, as well as counter to a legally acceptable process, for the Governor to address the legion of outstanding concerns and issues through a post-process, private and unilateral dialogue.”

They also note that thus far the negotiations have failed to even mention the two main threats to sage grouse — wildfire and invasive species. They note that proposed reductions in grazing would increase fuels and result in more fires. Additionally, no one is seriously addressing predator control, though sage grouse eggs are a favorite snack for ravens and coyotes.

Further, the LUPA will limit federal land acquisitions that allow rural Nevada communities to grow and expand their economies, and Eureka County specifically will be hampered in its ability to implement a water management plan that is crucial to two-thirds of the population of the county, as well as development of farms and mines.

The Eureka commissioners also note that Sandoval will not always be governor and Jewell will not always be secretary of Interior and ask, “Do we really believe meetings with selective agendas in private are the solution?”

The commissioners conclude by urging the governor to change course and join in the legal challenge that would better assure a final outcome that is satisfactory to all Nevadans.

Sandoval told The Associated Press recently that he has not ruled out joining the law suit “if we do not achieve our desired outcomes.”

We agree with the Eureka commissioners. A joint front in court has a better chance of a binding and longterm solution.

— TM