The Department of the Interior would ban new mining operations to save the sage grouse on public land, but the public will be allowed to weigh in.
On Sept. 24, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service announced the temporary ban on new mining claims on lands critical to sage grouse survival in six Western states.
In Montana, more than 983,000 acres of BLM land would be off-limits to new mining claims for a period of up to two years. The majority of the land surrounds the Missouri River near the Missouri Breaks, and much of it lies within the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
During that time, the agencies will complete environmental analyses to determine if mining on those lands would pose a threat to the resident sage grouse populations. If the ban is supported, the lands would be closed to new mining claims for up to 20 years, but existing mines or mining exploration would be allowed to continue.
The Sept. 24 announcement also established a 90-day public comment period regarding the temporary closure. The BLM must receive comments by Dec. 23.
“The BLM’s land-use plans were a key element in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that the greater sage-grouse no longer needs the protections of the Endangered Species Act. The future of the bird depends on the successful implementation of these plans,” said BLM Montana/Dakotas State Director Jamie Connell in an Oct. 9 release.
Over the past decade, biologists have found a number of human factors that contribute to the loss of sagebrush habitat and the decline in sage grouse populations, including natural resource extraction such as mining and oil and gas development, suburban sprawl, wildfire and poor grazing practices.
As the court-ordered decision to list the sage grouse neared, federal agencies scrambled to rewrite their conservation plans to limit some of these activities in prime sage grouse habitat.
On Sept. 22, the USFWS decided not to list the sage grouse as endangered based upon the efforts and conservation plans by federal agencies and 11 Western states.
“This is truly a historic effort — one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a prepared statement.
Prior to the decision, a number of states threatened to sue the USFWS if the bird was listed.
Rather than express relief at the USFWS decision not to list, some states, including Utah and Idaho, are still suing because of recent amendments to Forest Service and BLM land-use plans intended to preserve sage grouse populations.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said his state could do a better job of managing the sage grouse.
"Today’s actions constitute the equivalent of a listing decision outside the normal process and fail to support an appropriate balance between conservation and other public uses of the land," Herbert said on Sept. 22. "These federal land use plan amendments are unnecessarily restrictive in nature and devalue Utah’s management plan and the conservation commitments from private landowners."
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has indicated that it would reconsider its decision if efforts on the state and local level begin to fall apart.
The governors of Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada supported the amended plans when they were released and haven’t joined the lawsuit.
Because almost 30 percent of Montana’s prime sage grouse habitat is on federal land, Gov. Steve Bullock said his administration would work to loosen up the BLM’s restrictions on oil and gas development to make them more like Montana’s.
So it’s possible that the state would submit comments to the BLM on the mining closure in areas outside the Missouri Breaks monument.