BLM approves Nevada project critics claimed doomed by grouse

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RENO, Nev. (AP) — Federal land managers are clearing the way for a rural Nevada county to replace an aging water tank that critics called a prime example of development doomed by new protections for the greater sage grouse.

The move comes a week after Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval announced that the U.S. Interior Department agreed to address concerns about the land-use restrictions, including the water tank that White Pine County officials say is desperately needed near Great Basin National Park along the Utah line.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials authorized the necessary right-of-way late Thursday that will allow construction to begin in July, agency spokesman Steve Clutter said.

Clutter says the deal protects important habitat, consistent with regulations issued in September when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell determined that the chicken-sized bird doesn't need Endangered Species Act protection. The sage grouse lives mostly in high-desert sagebrush from California to the Dakotas.

"Construction of the tank will begin next year following the greater sage-grouse breeding and nesting season and in a manner that maintains public health and safety," Clutter said in a statement Friday.

The Obama administration said the water tank proves that protections for the bird can be carried out without major disruptions feared by opponents.

The tank is among the projects cited by nine Nevada counties, two mining companies and a ranching operation suing to block the land-use restrictions.

The lawsuit, which Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt supports over Sandoval's objections, claims the rules were adopted illegally and would threaten the survival of miners, ranchers and rural economies across much of the West.

Judge Miranda Du has refused to temporarily suspend the rules ahead of a trial expected to begin early next year. She said critics have failed to prove any irreparable harm from the restrictions.

Sandoval met with Jewell last week during a meeting of the Western Governors' Association and told reporters they had made strides in addressing concerns about the rules. He repeated his belief that the lawsuit undermined his ongoing efforts to negotiate reasonable protections for the bird.

"Some of these issues that are stuck in litigation — it could be years before we have some finality on some of these," the governor said last Friday. "This Baker water tank is 'Exhibit A.' We may be able to resolve this before there is even a decision."

The regulations establish buffer zones as large as 3 miles in diameter around sage grouse breeding grounds. The bird's numbers have dwindled from 16 million to between 500,000 and 200,000 due in large part to mining, livestock grazing and other development across 11 states.

Lawyers representing the BLM said in a brief filed late Thursday that the water tank site is 0.7 miles from an existing breeding ground and in an area that contains habitat for grouse breeding and nesting.

Nevertheless, federal officials could approve the project because it would benefit the grouse through installation of anti-perching devices to keep away raptors, among other things.

"Contrary to plaintiffs' assertions, these requirements are not 'one-size-fits-all,'" assistant U.S. Attorney General Luther Hajek wrote. "BLM has determined that the replacement of the water tank would provide a net conservation gain to sage grouse by reducing the attractiveness of the area to predators and ensuring a source of water to control wildfires."

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