Feds Mull Mining Limits to Protect Sage Grouse

The federal government is proposing to protect the greater sage grouse by withdrawing about 10 million acres from mineral development. (Photo: Sage Grouse Initiative)

(CN) – The federal government has announced plans to prohibit mineral exploration on roughly 10 million acres to protect sage grouse, though what the incoming Trump administration will do with the plans remains to be seen.

On Dec. 30, the Department of Interior released a draft environmental impact statement that includes withdrawing about 10 million acres in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming from federal mineral development laws.

The proposed withdrawal of these approximately 10 million acres of land identified as “sagebrush focal areas” is to protect the greater sage grouse and its habitat from adverse effects of mineral development projects.

According to the draft environmental impact statement, sagebrush focal areas are landscape blocks of high-quality sagebrush habitat with high breeding potential for greater sage grouse.

The proposed alternative in the environmental impact statement would prohibit new mining claims in the proposed areas and would last up to two years. The mining prohibition could be extended up to 20 years if the Interior Secretary approves the withdrawal.

That decision will fall to incoming Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who was appointed by President-elect Donald Trump in December.

Zinke, a Republican congressman from Whitefish, Montana, is an avid outdoorsman who appears to want to balance natural resource production with the environment.

When current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in November approved mining restrictions on Bureau of Land Management lands in Montana, Zinke said, “We need to invest in infrastructure projects like the Keystone pipeline, so we don’t need to flare excess gas.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service several years ago identified certain hardrock mining operations as a threat to sage grouse habitat, the draft environmental impact statement says.

The draft includes four alternatives.

In addition to the proposed action, the draft analyzes the potential effects of the no-action alternative, state of Nevada alternative, high mineral potential alternative and state of Idaho alternative.

Under the no-action alternative, the proposed withdrawal area would remain open to location and entry under the United States mining laws. New mining claims could be located and the BLM and Forest Service would continue to oversee and regulate locatable mineral exploration and development.

With the Nevada alternative, 487,756 acres in the Silver State that are part of the proposed action would not be withdrawn, but 387,981 acres of priority sage grouse habitat located contiguous to but outside the sagebrush focal areas in Nevada would be included in the withdrawal.

Nevada suggested this alternative to reduce the anticipated economic effect of the proposed withdrawal while still meeting the purpose for the proposed action, according to the Department of Interior.

Under the high mineral potential alternative, all areas within the sagebrush focal areas that contain lands with high mineral potential would not be withdrawn. Under this alternative, 558,918 acres of high mineral potential lands in the six states that are part of the proposed action would not be withdrawn.

The Idaho alternative would see 538,742 acres of economically developable lands in Idaho that are part of the proposed action left open to mining laws.

According to the Interior Department, 31 agencies and two American Indian tribes worked with the BLM on the environmental impact statement.

The draft environmental impact statement is available at https://www.blm.gov/node/3282. Public comments on the draft environmental impact statement will be taken until March 28, 2017.

Written comments should be sent to Mark Mackiewicz, Bureau of Land Management, Price Field Office, 125 South 600 West, Price, UT 84501, or submitted electronically to sagebrush_withdrawals@blm.gov.

Public meetings in connection with the proposed withdrawal and the release of the draft EIS will be held in February at various locations throughout the affected states.