BLM releases revised sage-grouse plans

Greater sage-grouse hens at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in November, 2018.

In an effort to preserve the population of the greater sage-grouse in Nevada, a program was initiated where developers can pay ranchers for conservation credits to improve their habitat.

Following an executive order issued by former Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) in Dec. 2018, the state’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council was instructed to draft standards that would require developers to mitigate their disturbances of the grouse habitat through Nevada’s Conservation Credit System (CCS).

The system works on a debit and credit system. Industries that impact sage-grouse habitats pay mitigation fees (debit) to projects that participate in conservation measures (credit).

The credit system is part of the greater sage-grouse conservation plan developed under the Obama administration in 2015. The conservation plan was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other Western states to keep the grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Nevada is known as the Sagebrush State, and the years of drought and wildfires have decimated the sagebrush habitat. Although grouse populations are cyclical, the bird continues a downward trajectory, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

In a 2017 Nevada Department of Wildlife report, male lek attendance of greater sage-grouse population in some areas have experienced more drastic decreases than others, and some areas exhibited a more stable trend.

The greater sage-grouse is considered an “indicator species,” representing the health of sagebrush habitat it shares with more than 350 other kinds of native wildlife, including populations of mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and golden eagles.

How the program works

Nevada’s CCS program is eligible for sage-grouse habitat on private, tribal, and public lands. Private landowners, on a voluntary basis, are eligible to participate in the program.

According to the CCS program, credit project durations are a minimum of 30 years with five-year term increments, up to perpetuity. Credit developers may set the contract period for their projects. A credit buyer must purchase credits that are equal in duration to the life of the disturbance being offset.

According to the CCS website, “Credit projects are evaluated for the number of credits conserved. Those creating debits will need to purchase credits in an amount necessary to offset their impact. For a given project site, the quality (function) of habitat is multiplied by the quantity of habitat (acres)—this results in a determination of functional acres for the project. Functional acres are then translated into credits or debits. Credit developers can make a profit on the credits that they sell.”

Ranchers must maintain the credits they committed at the time of the contract and for the duration of the contract. If enhancements or restoration are agreed to at the time of the contract (e.g., pinyon/juniper removal, meadow/riparian enhancement, livestock grazing practices, etc.), they may be entitled to sell these additional credits over time.

If the conservation area is destroyed by an event beyond their control such as fire, the credit developer would not be held liable. The credit developer and the CCS would discuss the possibility of restoring the site. If the likelihood remains low to restore the site, the remaining credit obligation will be fulfilled from a reserve account maintained by the CCS.

Recent transactions

Over the last couple of years, Nevada’s CCS program has established the protection and preservation of more than 20,300 acres of sagebrush habitat across the state’s rangelands through coordinated efforts. Until recently, however, most transactions have been done internally with mining companies who own their ranches as part of their operations.

It was not until just recently that transactions using the CCS program involved two separate parties.

On June 23, Nevada Gov. Stephen F. Sisolak (D) announced on Twitter that Klondex Mines, Ltd. and Estill Ranches partnered with Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) “to help protect critical sage-grouse habitat while ensuring environmentally sensitive mineral exploration.” In Washoe County, the partnership protected 346 acres of sage-grouse habitat.

The DCNR also announced Ormat Technologies, Inc. and Crawford Cattle, LLC are partnering to protect vital sagebrush habitat in Humboldt County “while simultaneously advancing the development of clean energy infrastructure for Nevada.”

“Nevada’s innovative sagebrush conservation credit program continues to build momentum in Nevada and lead other Western states in establishing tangible, on the ground protections for sage-grouse and the sagebrush habitat this iconic species depends on,” said Bradley Crowell, director of DCNR. “The success of the Nevada credit system also demonstrates that healthy ecosystems and economic growth can go hand in hand. I commend Ormat Nevada and Winnemucca-based Crawford Cattle for their commitment to protecting Nevada’s iconic greater sage-grouse species while helping advance our state’s efforts to address climate change [through] responsible development of Nevada’s abundant renewable energy resources.”

Ormat has worked in conjunction with Baltazor Geothermal Development Project to purchase 292 conservation credits “to preserve over 8,740 acres of sagebrush habitat in Humboldt County, benefitting the greater sage-grouse and hundreds of other native wildlife species for the next 30 years.”

Kelly McGowen, program manager for the Sagebrush Ecosystem Technical Team, told the Nevada Independent there is currently an equilibrium of credits and debits, but that could change with more industrial projects on the horizon. McGowen noted the program is not just companies looking to permit new mines or expand existing ones, but could apply to solar projects, geothermal plants and buried gas lines. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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