RENO, Nev. (AP) — An unprecedented attempt to protect sage grouse habitat across parts of more than 900 square miles of privately owned land in Nevada will begin under a deal Thursday involving the federal government, an environmental group and the world's largest gold mining company.
The agreement comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approaches a fall deadline for a decision on whether to protect the greater sage grouse, a bird roughly the size of a chicken that ranges across the West, under the Endangered Species Act.
Commercial operations, including mining companies and oil and gas producers, are entering into such deals in an effort to keep the bird off the endangered list, since the classification would place new restrictions on their work.
The deal, which involves Barrick Gold Corp., The Nature Conservancy, Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of land management, establishes a "conservation bank," providing the mining firm credit for enhancing critical habitat, in exchange for flexibility in future operations. It aims to preserve and restore more habitat than is lost through development.
"This is the kind of creative, voluntary partnership that we need to help conserve the greater sage grouse, while sustaining important economic activities on western rangelands," Land Management Secretary Sally Jewell said.
The agreement "strikes the right balance between economic development and conservation," said Michael Brown, executive director of Barrick's U.S. operations.
Similar efforts already are underway on a much smaller scale involving ranching operations in Oregon and Wyoming.
Scientists estimate the sage grouse population is less than half what it was in the early 19th century it inhabited an estimated 450,000 square miles of sagebrush across the West.
Growing threats to its nesting grounds include wildfires, invasive plants, livestock grazing, mining and oil and gas exploration. The risks have led land managers to consider new protections.
It's difficult to estimate what Barrick will spend on the conversation efforts but it "likely will be in the millions," company lawyer Patrick Malone said. He said much of the bird's most important range in Nevada is on private land.
"The bird benefits in ways that can only really happen through this public-private partnership," Malone said told The Associated Press.
Michael Cameron, The Nature Conservancy's associate state director for Nevada, acknowledged the agreement may not be embraced by some conservation groups who argue against development of any lands with habitat critical to the survival of the sage grouse.
"Our overriding objective in this is to achieve lofty conservation results on the ground," Cameron told the AP. "Certainly, in a case like this where we have the potential to achieve conservation improvements on potentially hundreds of thousands of acres, it is the kind of opportunity, frankly, that we have an obligation to try to approve."
BLM Nevada Director Amy Leuders likes the advance nature of the agreement. She said, "It's certainly to the benefit of the sage grouse and its habitat for conservation actions to occur before other impacts from mining operations occur."