Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife

Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Reno issued a significant ruling on a county level challenge to federal conservation policy, and a local infrastructure issue played a significant part in the proceedings.

On Jan. 5, United States District Judge Miranda Du denied the last part of an attempt to halt enforcement of the Bureau of Land Management’s latest development restrictions designed to protect local sage-grouse habitat.

In November, White Pine County submitted to the court a letter of concern written by David Sturlin, Chairman of the Baker Water and Sewer General Improvement District, to the BLM. In the letter, Sturlin details how federal regulation directly affects his district, specifically his attempt to replace a leaking water tank.

“During the early stages of the review,” he wrote, “it was thought that the BLM would grant a categorical exclusion to the project and not require an Environmental Impact Study due to the simplicity of augmenting the existing Right of Way.”

In order to replace the existing water tank, a new tank must be built first, to which the water will be transferred and water service will continue uninterrupted. To build the new tank, the District requires an extra 3,000 square feet. Once he had bidders for the project, Sturlin argues the BLM inserted a critical halt to the process by requiring an EIS on the threat to sage-grouse habitat.

In the letter, Sturlin insists his district continues to follow protocol which continually changes. He claims the lack of vegetation in the surrounding area is not a sage-grouse habitat, and he criticizes trivial new policy such as the color of the water tank. As the review and appeal process drags on, he also worries about the potential for bacteria growth in his water supply.

According to Chris Hanefeld, BLM Ely District’s public affairs specialist, the Baker District still has the option to appeal the BLM’s latest right of way plan.

“After proper analysis, we issued them an offer,” Hanefeld said. “We gave them a 30-year extension, and then expanded their physical space.”

Sage-grouse conservation has long been contested by regional mining and ranching interests, as well as the government entities that support the development of those industries. While not endangered, the sage-grouse population dropped from 16 million 100 years ago to between 200,000 and 500,000 today.

Broadly, conservation policy seeks to protect the bird’s habitat and breeding areas. The goal of U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s policy is to reverse the negative population trend and create a positive or neutral trend. To achieve such it has to reduce, minimize or remove threats to the bird’s habitat.

Opponents claim the government’s policy stymies development to protect a bird that does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. They also argue that grazing restrictions lead to a build-up of fire fuel, and that an uncontained wildfire would in turn destroy sage-grouse habitat. Their frustration is rooted in the belief that sage-grouse habitat conservation has become one of the federal government’s primary land management objectives in the West, at the expense of commercial development. Locally, northeastern Nevada is at the low end of the sage-grouse’s breeding strongholds.

In September, Elko County, Eureka County, Western Exploration LLC and Quantum Minerals LLC filed suit against the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service.

The suit claimed the agencies violated a slew of federal laws including three environmental policy acts enacted in 1969 and 1976, the 1872 Mining Law and the United States Constitution. A few days later, while arguments proceeded, the plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction, which is a court decision to prohibit the government agencies from carrying out the restrictions in their latest management plans.

In the suit, Elko County estimates an annual loss of $31 million in agricultural productivity and mineral, oil, gas, and wind energy development. Eureka County asserts that its own conservation plans adequately addressed sage-grouse protection while allowing for sustainable development.

Western Exploration is a Nevada company that spent more than $32 million on hundreds of mining claims across the state. Quantum Minerals is a Nevada company which acquired claims within and around the Jarbidge Mining District in Elko County in order to redevelop it. Quantum argues that they reviewed Forest Service documents, and that the latest Resource Management Plan transformed previously approved mining claims into a sage-grouse habitat.

White Pine County, along with the State of Nevada, six other counties, Paragon Precious Metals and Ninety-Six Ranch joined the case as plaintiffs in October. White Pine argues that the federal land management plan directly interferes with the county’s land use plan, specifically by restricting travel on public land in order to enforce sage-grouse conservation. Paragon is a Nevada company with mining claims in the northern Santa Rosa Mountains within the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Ninety-Six Ranch is a private 16,000 acre cattle ranch which possesses grazing permits for another 250,000 acres of federal land in the same mountain range.

In her decision, Judge Du ruled broadly that the plaintiffs “failed to meet the burden of demonstrating likelihood of irreparable harm.” She pointed to the Baker District’s open appeal opportunity as evidence that “claimed harm is neither immediate nor imminent.”

BLM Associate Ely District Manager Mindy Seal urges people to call her office.

“We’ll continue to work with local communities,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”

The court expects the case to continue well into summer and the wildfire season.