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August 21, 2014

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One strange bird could pave way for more fire prevention funds

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Nevada Division of Wildlife, Kim Toulouse, / AP

A male sage grouse, left, struts with two other males during mating season in April 2000 in northern Nevada.

Sage Grouse

This undated image provided by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department shows a sage grouse in the wild. Launch slideshow »

Nevada’s ability to deal with its worsening wildfires has been stuck for years in an iron triangle of federal problems: Thanks to stalled budgets, there’s no money to fight them; thanks to scientific disputes over climate change, there are no environmental policies to prevent them; and thanks to public-land regulations, there’s no way to circumvent the federal government in addressing them.

But the case of one strange bird is forcing Nevada to forge a solution on a strict deadline: If the state doesn’t stop the burning, in two years, a sweeping endangered species listing for the sage grouse could threaten the state’s entire economy.

“The sage grouse is as big a threat to Nevada as Yucca Mountain is,” Nevada Sen. Dean Heller said. “If it’s listed, we shut down.”

“It has a face only a mother could love, but it’s the precipitating factor,” Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei said. “An endangered listing translates to: ‘Nevada is closed for business.’ Closed to tourism, ag, energy, you name it ... and that’s not a win for anybody.”

Since 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had its eye on the sage grouse, a species native to almost a dozen Western states, though its preferred habitat exists chiefly in Nevada and Wyoming.

Sage grouse like to live where there is sagebrush, but sagebrush is susceptible to fire – especially when it is being squeezed out by cheatgrass, an invasive, largely inedible and highly flammable species that papers over former sagebrush territory in the wake of wildfires. That cheatgrass invasion speeds up the burning: historically, Nevada’s rangeland burns every 70 to 100 years; when covered with cheatgrass, it’s every three to seven years.

Citing a “lack of regulatory mechanisms to prevent greater loss,” Fish and Wildlife recommended the government start the process of listing the sage grouse as an endangered species. Next month, the agency will designate the sage grouse population of Nevada and California as “threatened.” If nothing changes, the bird will earn a final endangered listing in September 2015.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t want to have to list this species,” Noreen Walsh, Mountain Prairie Regional Director for USFWS, told the Sun. “But we have to prevent cheatgrass from invading other areas so we don’t continue to perpetuate the fire cycle over the great basin. Because if that happens, it won’t just be the sage grouse that loses.”

But neither the federal government nor Nevada has been able to muster coming up with a plan to satisfy Fish and Wildlife.

“This effort, as far as federal, state, tribal and private people working together, is just unheard of,” said Raul Morales, deputy director for Bureau of Land Management resources, lands and planning in Nevada. “But it needs to be. If we continue doing business the same way we have been, that bird is going to get listed.”

•••

On Wednesday, Amodei, Heller and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid met with representatives from various bureaus of the BLM and USFWS that will be weighing in and, eventually, judging Nevada’s efforts to save the sage grouse habitat.

“We need plans, but we need assurances the plans are going to be implemented,” said Ren Lohoefener, the Pacific Southwest Regional Director for USFWS. “And we need to monitor them to make sure it’s effective.”

“It’s a tall order,” Ted Cook, USFWS state supervisor for Nevada, acknowledged.

But not, apparently, an order the participants haven't seen before.

Ask a congressman, such as Amodei, or a bureaucrat, such as a BLM official, what has to go into mitigating the wildfires that are 85 percent of the sage grouse habitat problem, and they’ll give you the same answers:

• More hazardous-fuel mitigation and green-stripping of the affected land, as well as more sagebrush re-seeding.

• Pilot programs to disperse cheatgrass-eating bacteria across affected areas.

• Better maps — ones that take not only the sagebrush-vs-cheatgrass cover, but also plans for aberrant wind farms or power lines into account — wouldn’t hurt.

The only problem is coming up with ways to authorize and pay for it.

“That is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Not only do we have to find the right words and the right measures to put on paper, but we also have to prove that there is the right funding,” Morales said. “They’re going to want to see that the funding is in hand and not that it’s coming.”

“The sage grouse is going to be listed unless the federal government gives these agencies some money to do their job,” Reid said after Wednesday’s meeting.

Federal appropriations to fight and prevent wildfires have been steadily slimmed over the past few years, and in recent months they've been further exacerbated by sequestration cuts.

Nationwide, the U.S. Forest Service’s budget for fighting fires on federal lands has fallen from $3.4 billion in fiscal 2010 to $2.5 billion in fiscal 2012.

In Nevada, the state forestry division fire mitigation funds dropped this year to $6.9 million from $18.8 million.

With the Nevada legislative session over and the fiscal 2014 federal budget hurtling toward a continuing resolution, there is little room to argue for new streams of funding — however modest they may be.

Over the past 10 years, the federal government spent about $130 million on sage grouse habitat preservation, according to BLM’s Morales. From his conversations with officials, Amodei estimates that about $200 million over 10 years would be a reasonable sum to put toward meaningful wildfire control.

“It’s a pretty small ask, but pretty significant for this issue,” Amodei said. “But the problem is, how do you get the attention of the appropriators?”

Recent wildfires have been catching attention, with headlines about the blaze on Mount Charleston and the tragic deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona this summer.

Those high-profile wildfires have sparked a renewed conversation about the effects of climate change and how the federal government should be stepping up its response.

But Nevada doesn’t have time to resolve the scientifically and ideologically driven standoff over climate change, which could take years. What it needs is about $20 million a year to mitigate the fires that are starting on sage grouse habitat — now.

“Whether you think there is warming or not, it is drier in the West, it is warmer in the West, and it is having phenomenal economic impacts,” Amodei said, his frustration growing. “So I need to know, how can we get $20 million goddamn dollars a year for the next 10 years. That’s the whole thing! Seriously, you guys blow your nose with $20 million a year. And I’ve got to run an Olympic trial time 100-meter dash to get $20 million in there for the whole goddamn West?”

•••

If the money doesn’t come soon, the state is going to have to get inventive.

Nevada’s focus for the past year has been on getting all participants, including private ranchers, farmers, miners and energy developers to the table alongside state representatives and the federal agencies to discuss sustainable mixed-land-use policy for sage grouse habitats.

That isn’t just a goodwill gesture. With the economic climate being what it is, state representatives are seriously considering pushing for public-private partnerships to unearth new streams of revenue that would pay for the necessary fire-prevention activities.

“Private contributions are going to have to be part of the equation if we’re going to be successful,” Morales said. “I’m not sure if we can realistically get enough money from the feds or the state to do this.”

Nevada’s delegation doesn’t want to lean on stakeholders to pay for land preservation efforts that mostly concern federal lands. But getting alternative ideas through Congress is potentially fraught with as much difficulty as simply getting cash-strapped appropriators to budget more funds.

For example: Amodei has lightly ribbed Heller and Reid, asking them to wave a magic Senate wand and come up with another Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act-style law, to parcel off public land and divert the money to wildfire prevention efforts on sage grouse habitat.

“I don’t think you’ll ever do another SNPLMA, because it’s a little difficult to duplicate the rampant growth that is Las Vegas,” Amodei said. “But we’ve got a small parcels bill that allows the sale of 160 acres or less.”

“Federal lands sales could help raise some necessary funds,” Heller agreed.

But selling federal lands first requires congressional authorization — and those have not been forthcoming in recent years.

Amodei proposed a second idea: Split the accounts that go to pay for fire prevention and firefighting to avoid competition for dollars between firefighting and fire prevention.

“If you’re really against fires, you really have to think about your value judgments. It’s really time to think about shit that happens before the fire, kids,” Amodei said.

But siphoning off certain dollars for sage-grouse motivated fire mitigation may be a harder sell to other states around the West. Not every state suffering from wildfires hosts a significant sage grouse habitat, and not every state with a sage grouse population worries about wildfires.

Those subtleties of Nevada’s particular sage grouse habitat have officials turning back to the stakeholders on the range for a locally driven solution.

“This bit where somebody says, 'Well, I just want my cows, or I just want my horses, or I just want my chickens' — you know, those days are over,” Amodei said. “The lightning comes around whether people are driving quads or bulldozers ... and if this thing turns to junk, it turns to junk for everyone.”

And if poor quality land isn’t enough to keep stakeholders engaged, officials would have them consider this: If they fail to deliver a sustainable habitat plan and sage grouse is listed as an endangered species, ranchers, farmers and miners can add the risk of steep federal penalties to the cost of doing business, not just in Nevada but across the West.

“If the feds come down and say ‘this is how we’re going to do it,’ we’re probably not going to get buy-in,” Morales said. “Success is going to depend on people staying engaged after the plan — we can’t just say: ‘Phew, we’re done with the plan. The bird didn’t get listed. Let’s get back to life as normal.’ This is the new normal.”

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